The rarefied world of antiques has all the makings of a romance novel. Beauty, love, inheritance, the pursuit of fortune and the unraveling of mystery are in ample supply, along with the occasional gravedigger and a surfeit of extremely artful counterfeiters.

Scratch the surface of the 48th Washington Antiques Show, which runs through tomorrow at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, or delve into the catalogues of next week's major auctions during Americana Week in New York, and the dramas play out with irony, humor, extraordinary luck and even a little heartbreak.

At the opening of the antiques show Wednesday night, dealers Marty Shapiro and Kaye Gregg of the Finnegan Gallery in Chicago stood quietly amid the event's most eye-catching stage set. She is a horsewoman with an eye for rarity, he a lawyer turned solicitous dealer. Together they created a mock Italian garden ruin, with immense urns, a cast-iron bench with Gothic tracery, elegant marble-topped tables, trellises and more. The ensemble was lighted for maximum effect, and to ensure speedy sale.

As patrons wandered through aisles stocked with more traditional fare -- Federal furniture, brass candlesticks and export porcelain -- a young couple, Tim and Jocelyn Greenan of Marshall, Va., was stopped cold by the Finnegan array. Eyes fell upon a weathered, carved horse head, displayed on a pedestal in the center of the ruin like priceless sculpture. The wooden head could have been salvaged from an old French carousel. It was delicate but well preserved and, even at $8,500, perfectly charming in a 19th-century French way.

Dealer Gregg had fallen for the horse on a buying trip and convinced husband Shapiro that it would sell. And if it didn't, she would have been happy to take it home.

There was no haggling on this night. In 15 minutes the deal was done. Gregg looked stricken and fell quiet, if only for an instant.

"You can't really intellectualize why you need a carousel horse head," she said. "You fall in love, or walk right by."

The Greenans agreed to leave the horse on its pedestal only until yesterday.

A few aisles away, Joel Frankel of New York's E & J Frankel gallery took pains to explain the origins of another equine figure, this one made of pottery. The miniature prancing horse, only a few feet tall, was likely made for the tomb of a prince during the early Tang Dynasty, which stretched from 618 to 906. Frankel said he purchased the piece from an Asian collector, who had owned it for a quarter-century. The asking price was $45,000.

Frankel, who has specialized in Chinese and Asian art for nearly 40 years, was quick to acknowledge the risks in his field. Pieces of such rarity tend to come from old collections or have been unearthed from tombs over the past 50 years. As prices in the West have risen, and the difficulty of finding authentic pieces grows, artisans in China have taken to "restructuring" shards of pottery into instant antiquities, he said. As a result, plenty of what he called "excellent reproductions" are coming on the market.

"We take a lot of precautions," he said, including thermo-luminescence testing to determine age within a few hundred years.

Caveat emptor -- buyer beware -- is always the rule with antiques. But even for sellers there are surprises. John Nye, director of Sotheby's American furniture department, could barely contain himself over the discovery of an apparently unloved but exceedingly valuable serpentine bombe{acute} chest of drawers, which had been consigned for sale by the family that has owned it since 1772.

A highlight of the Americana sales at both Christie's and Sotheby's, which will take place Thursday through next Saturday, the chest is expected to sell for $1 million to $1.2 million. For one thing, it is only the seventh of its type that's known to exist. More important, Nye believes, new understanding of the cabinetmaker, Nathan Bowen, whose signature was found on an inside board, could alter Boston furniture history.

"This is like the Rosetta stone," he exulted by phone this week. "This is absolutely extraordinary. The form itself was so wonderful, so rare. Just having a bombe chest is a big event. One with original finish and backboards never off, the signature and date inside. . . . It will make collectors turn from avid to rabid."

The owning family has sought anonymity. The last generation to live with the piece is thought to have cared little for it, having relegated it to use as a toolbox. After the owners passed away, their children decided to cash out.

"It didn't appeal to their tastes," Nye said.

The Sotheby's sale will include two other lots of similar rarity and value. A 1770 tea table from Philadelphia with elaborate rococo carving and large-scale carved mahogany hairy-paw feet has a pre-sale estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. The table has made headlines before. It surfaced at a regional auction in 1994 and was later determined to be a rare Philadelphia piece rather than a more common product of an English workshop. When Christie's auctioned the table in 1996, New York dealer Leigh Keno, acting for a client, bought it for $695,500.

Sotheby's will also offer a 1775 marble-top New York pier table consigned by Stratford, the Virginia boyhood home of Robert E. Lee. The table, which was bequeathed to the house by a major benefactor, Caroline Ryan Foulke, in 1987, is being deaccessioned to raise money for the house.

Joyce Wellford, director of cultural resources at Stratford, explains that the house is hewing more strictly to its mission, which is to portray the life of the Lee family. The table, while beautiful enough to have been displayed in the parlor, was not a Lee possession.

No estimate was included in the catalogue, which devotes more than eight pages to the table and its origins.

The Washington Antiques Show runs through tomorrow at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert St. NW. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow. $12. For more information visit www.washingtonantiques.org

A 1770 tea table with large-scale carved mahogany hairy-paw feet.A carved horse head had no trouble finding a buyer at $8,500.A bombe{acute} chest of drawers is expected to sell for $1 million to $1.2 million next week in New York. Above right, Marty Shapiro of Chicago's Finnegan Gallery handles a carved horse head purchased by Tim Greenan at the 48th Washington Antiques Show. Right, Chinese snuff bottles.