NELSON Rockefeller's emeralds, Mary Pickford's jewelry, Russian icons, a Tiffany lamp found in an attic, the Metropolitan's old master paintings, a French king's pearls, paintings by Turner and Picasso, an American Chippendale desk, a Queen Anne mahogany tea table -- all these things contributed to a 1979-80 record auction season in the United States.

Many important new records have been set -- in part because of inflation. Some are so limited that they sound like a joke. As one auctioneer said, "every day we have a new record, if only for a silver fork in the fiddleback pattern sold on a Wednesday at noon."

But there was nothing funny about the prices in post-impressionist paintings. The "car auctions" when Christie's was selling the Henry Ford II collection and Sotheby's the Bernice Chrysler Garbisch collection brought a $33.2 million total. J.M.W. Turner's Juliet and Her Nurse set a record $6.4 million for Sotheby's. Photography sales went up by an astounding 214 percent.

Americana, art nouveau and art moderne (deco), and jewelry were the big-ticket items in the decorative arts sales. A mahogany kneehole desk brought $250,000 at Sotheby's Garbisch sale at Pokety on the Eastern Shore. A Tiffany spiderweb lamp at a Christie's auction sold for $380,000. sAt Phillips in New York, a Lalique Cougar brought $39,000 and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster $52,000.

An American mahogany tea table in the Queen Ann style, made in Boston circa 1750, was bought at C.G. Sloan & Co. in Washington for $65,000 by Harold Sack, a New York dealer who sold it to Clement Conger for the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms. The table descended from the Hooper family in Marblehead, Mass., once owners of the King Hooper mansion.

The time has come for the 19th century -- the Alma Tadema highly decorated piano brought $390,000 at Sotheby's to set a record for a 19th century work of art and a musical instrument.

Auctions have become glamorous, thanks to the big hype. Probably the prime example nearby was the Garbisch auction with all-day bidding and dinner on the grounds. But even the auctions held in the New York houses are becoming increasingly festive and social. Often, Christie's or Sotheby's comes to town to offer oral appraisals, with a fee going to a charity (here recently the Folger Shakespeare Library).

Collectors, large and small, this year have come to the auctions to take the finds away from the dealers, who once viewed auctions as their wholesale warehouse.

The drama, the theater of the auction, the skill of the auctioneer, the excitement of the bidders helps prices go up, up, up, while the item is going, going, gone.

The recession, far from hurting the business, seems to have helped with more people wanting to put their money into durable goods, though tight money has slowed sales of some medium price objects.

New York has become the biggest auction town in the world, even ahead of London.

Sotheby Parke Bernet expects its North American auction sales to reach $247,764,000 by the end of August. This is an increase of almost $100 million over the $150 million of the 1978-79 season. Sotheby's, contrary to their usual practice, is holding July and August sales this year in New York, delaying the final figures.

In September, in New York, Sotheby's will open its York Avenue Galleries, a four-story, block long building at 72nd Street and York Avenue just for the decorative arts. Paintings, prints, sculpture, books, jewelry, stamps and coins will continue to be sold at Sotheby's Madison Avenue Galleries. PB 84 will be closed, because the new auctions will be divided by type of object rather than price.

Christie's, New York, doubled its sales over the preceding year for a total of more than $113 million for 1979-80. None of these prices includes the 10 percent buyer's premium.

Phillips, New York, had sales of $12.9 million, up 36% over last year, with the largest growth in Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

The Gray Letter, a weekly antiques report, estimates the American art and antiques market annual turnover at $7.81 billion, up 25 percent over last year. The Gray Letter also estimates American auction sales as being up 62.8 over last year, while retail sales of arts and antiques have doubled.

An important fact of the 1979-80 year is the way auctions are spreading out to other cities: Sotheby's has a new office here and in Canada. C.G. Sloan has a new Baltimore office for appraisals and consignments.

Locally, C.G. Sloan & Co. had a record year with sales amounting to $5,929,030 (plus, of course, the 10 percent buyer's premium). So good, that the company, according to Donald Webster, the president, has leased the old Peking restaurant next door.

"We could only get a month-to-month lease," Webster said, "but we are going to spend many thousands of dollars to put it, and our old building into good condition. We'll hold our non-catalog auctions in the old Peking restaurant building, and the catalog ones in our old building. We expect to be able to stay here at least another two years. But we are looking around for a more permanent and suitable home. We'd like to find a historic landmark building.

"Washington has the highest per capita income in the country. No wonder the auction business is growing by leaps and bounds here," he said.

Sloan's has also added the area's first woman auctioneer, Stephanie Kenyon, a gemologist. Among the highlights of the season September through June:

Two other pieces from the same Boston estate as the tea table, handled by a Washington attorney, brought top prices: a Salomon Van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1600-1670) oil on panel, "View of an Estuary" went for $185,000; a John Constable (English, 1776-1837) oil on paper, "Village of Harnham," sold for $90,000.

The Van Ruisdael had been misidentified as being 18th century, worth about $1,500. But Russell Burke of Sloan's discovered the date and the signature when he took it to the light.

A signed Tiffany Studios three-light table lamp, in the Poppy pattern, brought $23,000.Silver did well. An 1816 American presentation silver wine cooler by Whartenby & Bumm of Philadelphia sold for $15,000 and a six piece antique A.E. Warner silver tea service, made in Baltimore in 1810 sold for $11,000. Eight Meissen porcelain plaques went for $16,000. A painted Pennsylvania dower chest from the Selzer family, circa 1780 went for $7,500.

Adam A. Weschler & Sons of Washington had sales of $3,950,000 September through June, up about 9 percent from last year. A highlight was an American Philadelphia highboy that sold for $26,000.

Here are some other important sales of the season. At Christie's

Christie', which has set just about every possible record in Art Nouveau and Art Deco set another world record for Tiffany and Art Nouveau with the Tiffany Spider Web Lamp from the collection of Joseph and Lillian Mihalak that sold to a private American buyer for $380,000, more than double the previous record for a similar lamp sold last year. The previous record for any Art Nouveau object had been $221,038 for a Galle vase.

A Galle Rhododendron double overlay table lamp sold to a Paris dealer for $74,000. A Peony Tiffany table lamp went for $240,000 to a private American collector. A magnolia leaded glass and bronze floor lamp sold to a private American collector for $210,000. An earthenware Rookwood vase painted by Matthew A. Daly went for $32,000. In all, according to Alastair Duncan, Christie's well-regarded Art Nouveau and Art Deco expert, sales for the periods (1890-1939) amounted to $7.4 million compared with a bit over last season's $5 million.

Eight George II side chairs by Giles Grendy, made about 1735 for the Duke of Infantado's castle at Lazcano, Spain, brought a world record price for English furniture at $290,000. Total sales for English and Continental Furniture was $4,499,255, up 45 percent over the previous year. Four chairs said to have been commissioned by Napoleon I for the Grand Trianon at Versailles, were bought back by the French and returned to Versailles at a cost of $26,000. A pair of gray painted chaises, commissioned by Louis XVI were also bought for Versailles for $17,000. A French 18th century commode in the neo-classic mode thought to be designed by Etienne-Louis Boullee sold for $240,000.

Oriental works of art were up to almost $4 million compared with $2.9 million last year. A Ding Yao saucer dish from the Northern Song Dynasty brought $180,000 for a Far Eastern collector. An imperial apple green and emerald green jade necklace from the Quing Dynasty brought $90,000. The highest Japanese sale ever held by Christie's brought $550,000.

A Louis XV enameled gold snuff box by Halle brought $150,000 from a London dealer. At the height of the silver craze, a pair of rare late 17th or early 18th century Dutch candlesticks were sold for $50,000, almost $2,000 an ounce when silver's melt value was $33 an ounce. Last month, when silver's melt value had plumetted a pair of Paul Storr silver gilt dessert-strands still sold for $32,000 to a London dealer.

The Mt. Vernon Ladies Association paid $15,000 for a four volume set of Earl Chesterfield's letters to his son, once owned by George Washington and bearing his signature and bookplate. Washington's brother's great grandson had sold the volumes for $17 in 1876.

A 49-volume set of works by John Gould, illustrating 3,000 prints of birds and mammals sold for $400,000.

A world record was set by the sale of a 16th-century Russian icon for $170,000, from the collection of the late George R. Hann of Pittsburgh, who assembled it in 1930 from Russian museums. The circa 1884 daguerreotype self portrait by Albert Sands Southworth sold for $36,000 to set a world auction record for a 19th-century photograph, an American photograph and a daguerreotype. Photography sales amounted to almost $1.5 million, more than twice the previous year's half million-dollar figure.

The May 13 Ford Collection set world records for a painting sale with $25.5 million for the session which included a Vincent van Gogh at $5.2 million; a Paul Cezanne at $3.9 million; Paul Gauguin at $2.9 million; Edgar Degas, $900,000; Modigliani, $600,000; and Boudin $480,000. A record for contemporary art was set at a sale that brought $2.6 million, with a Barnett Newman bringing $250,000, a Morris Louis $180,000 and two Frank Stella's for $85,000 each.

A blue diamond brought $300,000, a world record price per carat of $93,500. The pearl earrings given by Louis XIV to his mistress Maria Mancini, brought $230,000. Nelson Rockefeller's emerald and diamond parure sold for $430,000. Merle Oberon's jewelry brought $2.3 million and Mary Pickford Rogers brought half a million. Sotheby Parke Bernet

The highest price ever paid in the world for a work of art at auction was the $6.4 million for a painting by the English landscapist J.M.W. Turner. The record for an American painting was broken by the $2.5 million for a work by Frederick Church, "The Icebergs" found in a home for boys in Manchester, England.

The $20.3 million sale of the Bernice Chrysler and Edgar William Garbisch art and antiques collection set a multitude of new records, including one for the largest single owner sale and on-premises auction in America. The Garbisch collections of paintings, including a Picasso which brought $3 million was sold in New York. Their American antiques were auctioned at block buster sales in Pokety (their estate in Eastern Maryland).

Among other Pokety records was the $39,000 for an American eagle, paid by the Israel Sack company; Dutch Delft animals and figures from the top of the Garbisch sideboard brought $171,025 with a pair of Delft horses bringing $28,000. An American phone bidder bought 13 of the 30 porcelain lots at a total of $127,600.

A diamond broke a 10-year record with a price of $975,000.

Sotheby's set 300 new world auction records last year, hitting almost all categories.

The year-end figures are expected to be: paintings, $90.4 million; decorative arts, $57.2 million; jewelry, more than $23.1 million; Americana, $30 million. In the Americana category, records were set for an American folk sculpture, $53,000 for a wooden race track tout; Paul Revere silver, $64,000 for a coffee pot; an American eagle, $39,000; and an American print, $72,000 for a Mary Cassatt, an American impressionist; $205,000 for a painting by Childe Hassam, for an American watercolor; $165,000 for a Homer; for American folk art and an American Naive painting, $270,000 for a Hick's Peaceable Kingdom.

In percentages, sales of photography were up 295 percent; porcelain 158 percent; silver 120 percent; contemporary paintings, 235 percent; impressionist 165 percent; American paintings 77 percent; Chinese Works of Art, 70 percent.

Next year Sotheby's big sales are expected to be the collection of the late Andre Meyer, who gave the new 19th century European painting wing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Old Master paintings of Helen Janssen Wetzel and an Americana on-premises auction in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, auction catalogs, gloriously printed compilations of the objects offered in an important sale, together with estimated prices (actual prices printed and sent later) are without a doubt the best way to keep up with the antiques market. Locally Sotheby's sells their full color catalogs at the Georgetown office. Christie's and Phillips are available by mail. Weschler's and Sloan's catalogs are sold at their auction houses. You can buy either individual catalogs or subscribe to a year's publications by category. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, Among the recordbreaking items sold at recent auctions are the American eagle which sold for $39,000, the Tiffany lamp for $380,000, the Pennsylvania dower chest for $7,500 and the Queen Ann style tea table for $65,000.; Pictures 5 and 6, A highly decorated Alma Tadema piano brought $390,000 on the auction block, while the pair of Delft horses from Pokety brought $28,000.