"Washington always has been an extremely strong print market," says Chris Middendorf, owner of Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, "and print collectors here tend to be very savvy."

Savvy meaning that a collector considering paying $1,000 for a print in an edition of 50, would say to himself, " 'I'm going to find out what the other 49 sell for before I buy this print for $1,000.'

"People must realize," says Middendorf, "that there's a marketplace for prints just like there's a marketplace for anything else. They can justify buying a print, verify the quality and value of a print, just the way they can justify buying a certain type of appliance by reading about it in Consumer Reports.

"You're better off going to a gallery that handles or specializes in prints and knows about them than to, say, a frame shop that might happen to have prints, or to one of those hotel sales, which are the worst offenders." He advises neophyte print collectors to stick with galleries belonging to the Washington Art Dealers Association.

Jane Haslem, owner of Jane Haslem Gallery, 406 7th St. NW, says there's no excuse for a consumer to be ill-informed before paying big money for a signed print. Her advice: If you wander into a gallery and see a print you like, whether you're familiar with the artist or not, call the librarian at the National Museum of American Art, or curators at the print department of the Library of Congress, or museums, colleges.

Give them the title of the print, artist's name, kind of print -- woodcut, silkscreen, lithograph or etching -- and they should be able to give you, free, information on the print edition, number of prints made and when, the kinds of paper, size of the print and names of dealers handling that artist.

Then, says Haslem, you can get some idea of the print's value by calling another local dealer or someone like Associated American Artists 212-399-5510 , "one of the biggest print galleries in the world," and say, "I'm interested in buying . . . " and get a price to compare with the one given you by the first gallery.

The four biggest names in Washington print sales, according to area dealers: Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

The price range for signed prints? Among figures quoted by Middendorf: Picasso, $1,500-$150,000; Robert Rauschenberg, $1,000-$10,000 ("but most of his prints at the lower end"); "extremely good prints by very well-known, even hot, young artists," $500-$800, and "by good, local artists," $150-$250.

Noting that signed prints didn't really come into their own until this century, Middendorf says that an unsigned Goya print is expected to bring $600-$700 at auction this week. Within the last year, he adds, "a Rembrandt print sold for just under $1 million. One realizes that there is no top end to the market for the very, very best prints. Of course, you might have to wait 300 years . . . "