" . . . I got a box of maple sugar on my birthday. And I got me a gray mackinaw. And I got me some grapefruit from Tampa. Montgomery Ward sent me a bathtub and a cross-cut saw . . . " --"The Wells Fargo Wagon" from Meredith Willson's "The Music Man"

The usual association of the mail-order business is hardly with fine art.

Although catalogues of prints and other small art objects have been around for years, they are now proliferating, along with the rest of the mail-order business. Established art dealers, newcomers and others not generally associated with art--such as American Express, Spiegel and the Franklin Mint--are all selling by mail.

Prints represent by far the largest portion of mail-order art sales: Of the estimated $70 million-$80 million worth of prints sold every year, 10 percent is purchased through the mail. Catalogue offerings range in price from $10 to $2,000 and up, but most buyers pay $50 to $300 per print.

Convenience--which is behind the general catalogue boom--and price are most often given as reasons for buying art through the mails. Also, dealers point out that some people are discomfited by an art gallery's sometimes rarefied atmosphere. Instead of appearing in person, they can make acquisitions in the comfort of their homes.

On the other hand, dealers note that catalogues--which usually contain a sampling of their stock--bring others in to see the genuine works.

"Because they've never framed anything before," most buyers want works framed, says Nigel Cook, director of Christie's Contemporary Art, a subsidiary of the auction house.

"They wouldn't know how to do it and don't want to worry about it."

While mail-order catalogues are a legitimate outlet for art dealers and other concerns--from major museums to neighborhood galleries--they also can be a haven for those who would defraud the public. The experts recommend caution.

One of the most egregious examples of fraud was perpetrated in the mid-1970s by a distant relative of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. The relative sent thousands of brochures to potential buyers offering "original prints" ($200-$300 each) signed with the seal from the artist's estate.

As it turned out, the prints were not original--created by the artist or from lithographic plates made in the artist's lifetime--but photographic reproductions of some of Renoir's paintings. After charges were brought by the U.S. Attorney's office, the relative wrote everyone who had purchased prints, offering to refund their money.

Virtually anyone can place an advertisement in a magazine or newspaper, or send out a brochure or catalogue offering art prints.

Some sellers may have established art-print businesses as tax shelters. Since the object of the shelters is to shield money from taxation and declare high deductions and losses, the selling end of the venture may be of secondary interest. Thus the advertisements may promise more than the investor can deliver, and the quality of the works might be questionable.

Finding a responsible dealer can be difficult, experts say, but there are ways to play it safe. Word-of-mouth is the best reference. It might be helpful to locate an acquaintance or museum curator who has had some dealings with the person or company offering artworks by mail.

The size and reputation of the company selling the art also may be considered. American Express and Christie's, for example, are large operations with long-standing reputations of good service. Such organizations clearly wouldn't jeopardize their standing with a cheap art-print scam.

"The buyer has to rely entirely on the reputation of the operation selling the art," claims Sylvan Cole, director of Associated American Artists, New York and Philadelphia, started in 1934 and believed to be the first mail-order art business in this country.

"A lot of Johnny-come-latelies give themselves away by offering what they call original Braque prints in black-and-white or, if you like, hand-colored. It's obvious the artist had nothing to do with them, but the buyer has to know how to read between the lines."

Cole adds that the number of complaints against mail-order art dealers are "probably quite few because there are a lot of suckers around who believe everything they're told."

It also is likely that few suits are filed because of the relatively small amount of money involved. Few people go to court over a $150 print.

"You should never finalize a purchase until you've actually seen the work of art," maintains Gilbert Edelson, counsel to the New York-based Art Dealers Association of America.

"It's not infrequent that when you actually experience a work of art itself, that experience is different from the one you got from seeing a photograph of the work."