PICTURES AND pattern names make the job of tracing discontinued china patterns much easier. When Carl Assenheimer first got into the business he says he wasn't specific enough with his directions. "I just told customers to send in a photo and some identification. Well, one woman wrote back, saying, 'I don't know why you need this but here it is' -- she had enclosed a photograph of herself . . . she wasn't half bad-looking, as I recall. Another woman sent me a Xerox copy of her driver's license!"

Assenheimer, who with his wife Elsie, runs the Topex Co. (Tiffin Ohio Pattern Exchange) in Tiffin, Ohio, looks at his job as a kind of scavenger hunt -- only without the deadline. "We hold onto a request until we find the order."

Another china hunter who never gives up is Jay Allen Murphy Jr., owner of Patterns of the Past in Princeton, Ill. "We get so much mail [600 letters a day -- taking six people five to six hours to open] we can't answer it all, but we never give up searching for a request. The customer may not hear from us for two, three years, but eventually we get back to them." Murphy says the majority of his requests are for cups. "About 20 percent of the time we can locate the pattern piece immediately, but sooner or later we find everything."

Locating discontinued china is a booming business. As well as the Washington-area matching services, many local china merchants have long lists of mail-order china-locating firms around the country (see list below, compiled with help from Fields and Co. in Bethesda, Chase Furniture in Silver Spring and Martin's China in Georgetown).

Barbara Palmer of the Worcestershire Shop in Olney, Md., is a local china chaser. She prefers that her customers come in with the china to avoid mistaken pattern identities. "Spode's Fitzhugh pattern comes in blue and red, but has been discontinued in green. It really helps to see the item," stresses Palmer. She handles only china that's been discontinued in the last five to six years. "Beyond that," she says, "the chances of finding it becomes slim."

The Worstershire Shop's main business is selling china seconds, which is; how Palmer got involved in pattern chasing. She buys department store stock, both here and in England, where her sister keeps a watchful eye out for her. England is where many china manufacturers are based. Palmer also buys factory rejects. "These rejects," she explains, "have very little wrong with them; whether they pass the test depends on the rigidity of the examiner.

"We usually don't buy used china," adds Palmer, whose company recently moved to Olney.

Bill Fleisher Jewelers of Hyattsville claims that 90 percent of the time they can match china patterns. Fleisher sends a bulletin periodically to different companies, noting what he needs. He also has representatives who travel around the country and notify Fleisher when they see one of his requests. "We always check the basement stocks of large department stores -- besides helping us, it helps them get rid of unwanted merchandise." Fleisher charges whatever the item -- or comparable pattern -- would sell for. f

Murphy, of the Illinois-based Patterns of the Past, carries more than 10,000 patterns ranging from 1900 to 1981: Wedgwood, Spode, Noritake (95 percent of their patterns), new and old Haviland and more. murphy says he receives a lot of requests from Washington -- particularly from the diplomatic corps. "They buy china overseas and when they get back they realize they're missing or would like this piece or that. And since they can't go back to the store they bought it from, they come to me," he says.

Murphy filled a request for china last December for the Reagans' first Washington gala at the F Street Club.

Murphy started selling china in 1946, but found he was "getting stuck with his pattern and that. Then factories began sending their people to me to locate pieces they had made. So I added a locating division to my jewelry/china/crystal store."

Murphy charges that current factory price, if the pattern is still being made, or charges the going price on a similar pattern. "Old Haviland is similar to new, but some pieces (platters) are only worth a third the price," he notes.

Sometimes Murphy receives two requests for the same pattern. "If I have an entire set of china, for instance, and one customer wants six plates and six salad dishes, while the other needs six cups and saucers, then I'll break up the set.However, only when there are takers for the different pieces of a set will I break it up."

Murphy remembers one time when he connected two people who were living across the Mississippi River from each other, one in Iowa, the other in Illinois. "The one in Iowa was looking for a certain Haviland pattern and after several antique stores, she came to me. I knew right away the only person who had that pattern lived literally across the river."

Back in Tiffin, Ohio, the Assenheimers estimate they receive about 50 letters a day. "We work with all brands and patterns," says Carl Assenheimer."The problem we run into most often is lack of information. Many people claim that their china has no patters name -- and sometimes they're right. Patterns older than 25 years often don't. The older ones usually have numbers. But sometimes the real fly-by-night manufacturers put no identifications on their ware. Then we're stuck.

"We also have trouble when it comes to locating china given out at the supermarket or filling stations. Once they were sold, the manufacturer -- usually a Japanese firm -- stopped making it entirely.

"We buy discontinued stock from Macy's and Lazarus. If we don't, and they're still stuck with the pieces after they've marked it down, they take it to the dump."

The Assenheimers used to work for U.S. Glass' Tiffin division in the early '60s. They both lost their jobs in 1963 when the company closed. But although they were rehired when U.S. Glass reopened, "we swore that that would never happen again. I suggested to my boss that we set up a cross file for customers to find china. He said no, until I suggested doing it at home and that's where we still operate from -- home."

The Assenheimers opened Topex Co. in early '70s after leaving U.S. Glass. Carl Assenheimer claims they never advertised, but in 1974, when McCall's magazine ran a small paragraph on them, they received 17,000 requests in less than eight months.

"Our post office wasn't too happy with us. It took us a year to answer all the requests. Today we don't answer all our mail -- only those we can help. The others are kept on file in case we come across something for them."

Assenheimer charges an $8 handling fee; $6 for less than four pieces. The first $100 is insured automatically, but for each additional $100, they add 25 cents.

Advice for the china-hunting consumer:

Send a photograph or Xerox copy of the pattern -- plates are best.

Write down the manufacturer, pattern name and number (usually found on the back of the plate).

Enclose a stamped and self-addressed envelope.

Assenheimer asks his customers to specify whether, if they request 10 items and he can only locate one, one will do.

"And," says Murphy of Patterns of the Past, "when buying china sets, buya a double set of cups -- they're the first thing to go."

Assenheimer recommends looking in junk stores, "half the merchandise is junk, but the other half often turns out to be valuable."

Where to write -- (this is only a small sampling; many more exist): Topex Co. (Recommended by Garfinckel's 58 Linda Lane Tiffin, Ohio 44883 Patterns of the Past 513 S. Main St. Princeton, Ill. 61356 The Jewel Box Attn: Vernelle Hasty Box 145 Albertsville, Ala. 35950

(China-buyer Mary Ann Lowery, of The Jewel Box, says they have more than 3,000 discontinued patterns. Like the others mentioned, they receive huge amounts of mail -- 50,000 letters in six months -- and hold onto requests until they're filled. "We may be going to a computer operation shortly," Lowery adds. You can see why.) Judy's House of Hope 2968 Appling Dr. Chamblee, Ga. 30341 The China Mater 99 W. Carlos Rd. Memphis, Tenn. 38117 China Chasers Inc. Box 214 Dunwoody, Ga. 30338 The Seekers 9014 Roos Rd. Houston, Tex. 77036 Locates, Inc. Box 1259 Little Rock, Ark. 72203 Vintage Patterns, Unlimited Box 39344 Cincinnati, Ohio 45239 Simth China Shop 1111 Water St. Santa Cruz, Calif. 95060 Old China Patterns Ltd. Attn: Glen Roe 6282 Kingston Rd. Highland Creek, Ontario Canada