According to art dealer Manfred Baumgartner, something miraculous happened in Washington last year: "People began spending money on art -- big money," he says. "I think it has something to do with Reagan, and all this yuppie money."

Whatever the reasons (and several other dealerships bear him out), Baumgartner says his frustration with Washington has passed, and he's proved it not only by abandoning his search for space in Manhattan, but by sinking big money of his own into the renovation of his town-house gallery at 2016 R St. NW. He has not only doubled his handsome exhibition space in the just reopened gallery, but picked up a touch of art-world class in the bargain.

The inaugural show features Peter Charles, an important Washington sculptor seen previously, if not in such amplitude, at Henri and most recently at the Phillips Collection. All 16 works are from a recent series titled "Objets d'Art," and the show looks, at first encounter, like an exhibition of antique bronze vessels and vases. With titles like "Antique Amphora," "Covered Jar" and "Old Kingdom Artifact," they are often precariously perched atop tall, slim column-like bases, or on wall-hung pedestals. The bases form an integral part of the work, both physically and conceptually.

Charles is a formalist in realist guise, toying both with David Smith's frontal, constructivist approach and with Anthony Caro's revolutionary notion that sculpture needs no pedestal because it is no longer the mere "precious object." Though Charles' sculptures look like precious objects, they are, in fact, all constructed from flat, 4-by-8-foot sheets of stainless steel, which he cuts up and welds together, as did Smith with his abstractions. Sometimes, as in "Bright Vessel," Charles polishes the surfaces to a silvery metallic shine, recalling Smith. More often -- and more affectingly -- he gives his surfaces the ancient aura of rich, brown patinated bronze by rubbing them with chemicals or lacquer.

The best pieces have a timeless presence, a purity of form and sense of perfect balance that recalls Japanese flower arrangements. Ikebana comes most specifically to mind in "Enigma," a tall, square column topped by a nobly proportioned vase from which rises one slim, vine-like squiggle of steel. Though this piece is all steel, most of these sculptures, like the haunting, wall-hung "Kouros II," also include branches or boughs of dark, oiled walnut that appear to defy gravity as they balance atop various urns and vessels, adding a profound sense of harmony as well as visual tension.

But we have been tricked before, and are here tricked again, by Charles as we learn -- with some astonishment -- that these barkless "branches" of wood are, in fact, carved from planks of rough-cut lumber and then stained to look "real." Milled wood has thereby been thrust back to its natural state, just as shiny sheets of steel have been thrust backward in time to emerge as ancient-looking artifacts. These transformations, or illusions, add immeasurably to the intellectual resonance of work already piled high with purely sensual pleasures. It is a very strong show.

Charles, who teaches at Georgetown University, will be the featured artist through Feb. 8. Hours at Baumgartner Galleries are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays. Robert D'Arista at the Circle

The Circle Gallery in Georgetown, also new, is showing small-scale oils, drawings, etchings and monotypes by American University professor Robert D'Arista, a painter's painter who shuns the commercial art world and rarely exhibits. In this show, much of his art seems as private and elusive as he.

When D'Arista is good, he is very, very good, as in the angled interior view of his bedroom, in which he lingers lovingly over a blue-and-white-striped coverlet. It is a scene as vibrantly warm and intimate as a Vuillard, and similarly dappled with light. There are other agreeable painted still lifes and interiors here, but none has the visual or emotional clarity of this scene. Clarity, in fact, is something D'Arista doggedly refuses to give us often, perhaps because he equates it with the obvious.

But given the delicious nature of his painterly brush, of his fine hand at drawing and his tender perception, one can only wish that D'Arista would do the obvious more often, and simply relax and paint what he sees and feels. It is possible, of course, that that's what he's doing, and that the lack of clarity is in the vision itself. More likely it is D'Arista's apparent search for a DeKooning-like balance between figuration and Abstract Expressionism that bogs him down. If so, it is an idea that might be usefully scuttled and replaced with pure intuition.

There are some fine little etchings, including a self-portrait, in this show, which closes Jan. 31. But the drawings and monotypes, often murky in nature, continue to escape me. Perhaps one must be a painter to fully understand.

Circle Gallery is located in a courtyard at 3232 P St. NW, behind Aberdeen Bookshop, and is part of the nonprofit Washington Studio School, where several colleagues from the American University art department give reasonably priced classes in traditional painting, drawing, monotype and etching techniques, along with seminars on framing. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and will eventually show -- though not exclusively -- the work of its faculty members, among them Jack Boul, Carlton Fletcher, Lee Newman, David Holt, Joseph Kossow and Katy Murray. For Admirers of Realism

There are, by the way, two other galleries in the neighborhood that will appeal to admirers of traditional realism: Adams Davidson (3233 P St. NW), which is currently offering for sale several 19th-century American landscapes by Thomas Cole, Sanford Gifford, Frederick Church, John F. Kensett and -- most importantly -- Martin Johnson Heade; and just a few doors away, Taggart, Jorgensen & Putman (3241 P St. NW), also specialists in 19th- and early 20th-century American painting, with an emphasis on American Impressionism.

Aberdeen Bookshop also has a very pleasant gallery upstairs at 3236 P St. NW, where good photography shows take place on a regular basis. "Personal Vision," a group of photographs by Brian V. Jones, is currently on view.