A young Washington couple with a new apartment to furnish visited several Georgetown art galleries one afternoon, hunting for a painting to hang on a blank dining-room wall.

They were looking for a painting they liked, and one that was affordable and large enough. It also, said the wife, "couldn't clash with the carpet."

They found one that met most of their specifications -- a recently completed abstract in soft tones and graceful lines -- but at $500 was somewhat more than they had intended to pay. Still they bought it, figuring "it would be a good investment."

Only later, when they had become a bit more knowledgeable, did the pair realize they had approached their purchase the wrong way. Barring sudden fame for the artist they probably never would get back what they paid for it.

"Is art a good investment?" they asked themselves, in these days when high inflation is eating away at money once saved for retirement.

It can be for the investor with a few hundred to be a few thousand to spare, say Washington-area art dealers and collectors, provided you go about it in a more businesslike way than did the neophytes mentioned above.

But if you don't know what you are doing, it can be "risky," says Chris Middendorf of Middendorf-Lane Gallery.

Middendorf believes it's "relatively easy to make sound and safe investments for under $5,000. It all depends on how much of a risk you want to take." Major paintings by young artists, he says, are available for $3,000. "If that artist makes it, you've made a fortune."

"Risky," seconds Jill Elisofan of Osuna Gallery, who helps corporations decorate their walls while building collections as an investment.

She expands the concept of art to include "textiles and some African jewelry." Many people, she says, "even invest in their china." For herself, "Almost everything I buy, I try to make a quality-type art object -- and an investment. I might buy a special Somali necklace for $75. I know I can resell it for $200."

Although current signs point to a rush on art investment, some experts talk more in terms of "speculation." What is fashionable now, they warn, might not be so in 10 or 20 years. And collectibles, unlike stocks or savings accounts, do not pay dividends or interest and may take 5 to 15 years to increase significantly, if at all.

On the other hand, artists ignored in the past could be rediscovered -- to your profit.

Last fall, Carl Frandsen of the American Petroleum Institute paid $70,000 -- as, he says, a "hedge against inflation" -- for three works from the Adams Davidson Galleries. The purchase included two small paintings by 19th-century American painter Frederick Church, whose works, though he was fairly well-known, were relatively low-priced.

Shortly afterward, another Church work, "Icebergs," sold at auction for $2.5 million, the highest price ever paid for an American painting. Three months later, Frandsen's paintings were reappraised for $170,000.

Frandsen, whose good fortune prompted him to lecture an Open University class on his experience, told potential investors "to buy quality at all times. A quality work by a lesser name is a better investment than a second-rate work by a big name."

Barbara Fendrick of Fendrick Gallery is a dealer not altogether happy with the idea of art for investment."We always insist a work be bought for personal pleasure."

You may spend the same amount for a suit as for an artwork, she says, but the art "you expect to have for 15 to 20 years and pass on to the kids, while the suit wears out in three years."

Still, she says, "If one buys astutely, you can make money."

One man who has taken an investment risk in a big way is Gerald Schneider. Brooklyn-born, he came to Washington 11 years ago as executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, became interested in art and gave up a career in the environmental movement to make his living investing in artworks. "I live," he says, "by my wits."

Though still relatively new at art investing, Schneider "made $10,000 in the last four months from sales. My growing art collection is my second greatest asset after my house."

It all began when he traded a piece of vacation property for several pieces by a major Washington artist whose work he had studied. That's one big tip all the experts give to investors: Know what you are buying.

Schneider, 41, is currently teaching two Smithsonian Associates courses on art investing, "Art for Love and Money." He has also given the course at Georgetown University and Montgomery County Adult Education.

The young couple, he says, is not alone in their inexperience. "In this town," most art buyers are looking for something "with a little yellow to match the rug in the living room."

In Washington today, believes Schneider, "There are many fine artists" producing "quality" works, even from $100 to $500. But, he warns the prospective investor, "Most art has no resale value."

Remember, Schneider tells his classes, "It's much easier to buy than to sell." The alternatives for resale are limited, he says, and "If you can't sell, it's not an investment."

The dealer who sells you a painting might buy it back, but probably "only at wholesale," says Schneider, which could be half the price you paid.

To sell profitably at auction, he says, it's got to be the kind of quality work normally handled by auction houses. He suggests studying auction catalogues to see what's on the market.

Though the advice may seem obvious, Schneider -- and other experts -- say a key to good investment is "buying things you find attractive. If you don't, others won'ts." One consolation for the novice couple who found their abstract had little resale value: "We still enjoy it."

Schneider advises that once you find something you like, "Look at all the artists who are producing that kind of work. Then choose those who are potentially important."

Beyond this, it must be noted, the experts often disagree on investment tactics. The advice ranges from concentrating on 19th-century works to seeking out new artists who might become famous.

For a conservative investment, advises Schneider, "Stick to time-proven people not likely to be valued down." But generally they're going to be more expensive.

"Obviously, the place to make the most money is with up and coming artists."

But "that's more speculation."

Schneider suggests keeping watch on new artists if:

The critics like them.

They're getting "lots of publicity."

The "museums are buying" them.

They "have personalities that attract the news." Says Schneider, "I read Art in America magazine to see who's popping up."

Schneider is taking a look at West Coast Artists who earlier in the century may have been ignored by the all-important New York market.

Other possibilities, he says, are Old Master prints; English watercolors of the 18th and 19th century "because they're not collected here much; and "social realism" works of the 1930s -- "upbeat scenes by recognized artists of the time."

When you make your purchase, Schneider advises, be sure to "obtain a certificate of authenticity from the dealer or artist. It's very critical."

And one last cautionary note. There are, says Schneider, some things you should not buy for investment.

Among them: "Oversized art" and "unattractive subjects," including those that are "heavily religious -- crucifixions, flagellations" -- or ones displaying "death, pornography or sexy nudes."

Why? "People don't hang them in their living rooms."