For 17 years, Washington's well-to-do shoppers marked the start of the holiday season with a spending spree at Marston Luce's antiques shop near Dupont Circle.

On the appointed day, they queued outside the locked door, tapping their Ferragamos as temperatures dropped and rain or snow fell. Designers stood patiently with ladies who lunch and collectors with a passion for Luce's nationally known specialties: 18th- and 19th-century Americana, then similarly old and pedigreed country French.

The dealer's elite clientele suffered willingly for style--in this case, first crack at the collection. This year, they won't get that chance. Luce has canceled the annual open house.

"It was getting out of hand, bringing out the worst in people," he explains. "We just decided to stop."

Standing in his Cleveland Park dining room, he shows off well-aged sconces with cherubs, gilded angel wings, a prized sun-burst mirror and the rest of a 40-foot container-load of newly arrived treasures. The items were on their way to the shop where, since yesterday, most have been on display amid a swag of fresh boxwood.

The show goes on, just not the frantic, derby-style opening party.

"Designers have been calling. People thought they were left off the list," Luce says. "But there won't really be a 'first day.' "

And no wonder. The event had become a phenomenon. Armed with elaborate invitations, crowds began forming at 9:30 a.m. Not until 11 a.m. would Luce open the door--and rip down the brown paper that hid his elaborate window displays.

"People had started coming at night, trying to buy things through the glass the night before," Luce explains. "It was like trying to work in a fishbowl."

Trouble was, while the dealer and his partner, Julie Southworth, presided over punch and roasted pecans, their discriminating customers had taken to competitive shopping. In their eagerness to snap up every new thing, often within two hours of the opening, some shoppers began checking their manners at the door. Others brought their own "sold" stickers. By last year, elbows had come out, and Luce recognized the event had become a victim of its own success.

"Too many rats in a small space," he says. "People were complaining. They were going away unhappy."

The appeal of the shop at 1314 21st St. NW, which Luce and Southworth have operated since 1981, is a combination of casual ambiance and New York-style trend-consciousness. They began selling Americana just as old weather vanes and painted furniture became chic. Celebrity customers like Lynda Carter, Carly Simon and Barbara Walters found their way to the door. So did major style arbiters Paige Rense, editor of Architectural Digest magazine, and Bill Blass, whom Luce sees regularly when the fashion designer comes to town for trunk shows. They appreciated the artful tableaux of topiaries and statuary displayed atop scrolled, wrought-iron garden furniture, and the themed exhibitions--of all-white objects, birdhouses and antique children's furniture--that kept the shop right in the style Zeitgeist.

After Luce and Southworth bought a house in France, where they now spend several months a year, the focus shifted to country French antiques. Like the Americana, they tend to be simple, painted pieces, with strong design elements. They are unapologetically high end.

For this holiday season, a life-size 19th-century reindeer from a French chateau garden has been placed in the window and priced at $6,700. Folk-art tree ornaments run less than $20, but the gilded angels from Italy and France run closer to $2,700. They're out there on the display floor with a pyramid of 19th-century English toy drums for $55 each. Vintage terra cotta garden pots, a staple, go for $14.

To alert his customers to the new collection--but with less hoopla--Luce sent out announcements in the Thursday mail. He expects clients will begin to get them today.

Latecomers may still find a few treasures amid the festive boxes of Agraria fragrance. But as early as yesterday morning, a handful of insiders were vying for a prize: an out-size round French mirror with an elaborately carved frame. It had attracted the interest of a couple within minutes of their arrival, and they had snatched the identifying tag off the mirror while engaging in a cell-phone consultation with their decorator. Designer Frank Babb Randolph rushed in, measuring tape in hand. He checked out two silvery French art deco floor lamps before spotting the mirror.

Sue Burgess, another local designer, had been first at the door. Arriving at five minutes to 11, she stood outside in the rain until the door opened--and the non-event began.

"I've been on to him since October," she explained. "I was here yesterday. He's got a great eye."