From as far away as London they came, some 150 of the world's finest antique dealers, masters in the art of discerning what is real and what is fake.
They were lured to the Capital Centre here last weekend to partake in what was billed as the world's first electronic auction -- an event, they were told, that would attract customers by the thousands and prove profitable for one and all.
They lost their shirts.
"This has to be the worst-promoted show in history," said George Redtman of Flynn-Redtman Antiques in Baltimore. "I've seen more people at a garage sale."
Moaned Louis Lawrence, director of Tempus Antiques Ltd. of London: "Even in a small English village, we'd draw more people than this."
Redtman, Lawrence and the other dealers -- some of whom sold nothing during the entire three-day show -- lost thousands of dollars.
They lost some pride as well. For these esteemed and, by nature, skeptical dealers were convinced to risk money in a venture organized by a new and untested firm whose owner, Michael Behar, conceded he had never staged an auction before.
"There are risks in any new venture and we made some mistakes in advertising," said Behar, a 36-year-old computer consultant from Westport, Conn. "But the electronic auction is a brand new concept and I still believe in it."
In addition to the dealers, Behar and his company, Artnet International Limited, persuaded some of the Washington area's most prestigious institutions and personalities to cooperate.
The Washington office of CARE Inc. agreed to sponsor an opening night preview last Thursday at the Capital Centre at which Austrian Ambassador Karl Herbert Schober was honorary patron and Arthur Godfrey, Chris Hanburger and Cloris Leachman were special guests.
Earlier in the month, Garfinckel's donated space in its downtown store for a display of antiques from the show and hosted a breakfast seminar at which White House Curator Clement Conger spoke.
"We did very well," said Ronwyn Ingraham, CARE's Washington director, who said her organization made $12,000 to $15,000 from the preview.
Everyone else fared far worse. Some dealers blamed the weather -- it was a sunny and crisp September weekend -- and some the Cap Centre, which has never housed an antique show before and is more familiar to basketball fans than to antique lovers.
But almost everyone blamed Artnet for poor advertising and sloppy organization. Several said an Artnet salesman promised the show would draw at least 60,000 people -- a contention Behar denied. While Cap Centre officials would not release attendance figures yesterday, dealers who checked with the gate said the show would be lucky to have drawn 2,000 paying customers for the entire three days.
The key event was the electronic auction, which was to be televised on the Cap Centre's four giant telescreens and transmitted by satellite to hundreds of cable television outlets around the country.
Prospective buyers could come to the Cap Centre to bid or call in their offers on a toll-free phone number. All bids were to be processed by a computer designed by Behar.
"It was a beautiful concept," said Bonnie Ruza, Behar's public relations aide. "Michael's a true pioneer, a dreamer."
But dealers said the auction proved an electronic flop. They claimed Artnet signed on more items than it could possibly auction in the broadcast's nine hours, started the bidding far below minimum acceptance prices and often televised rather fuzzy photographs of the objects rather than the objects themselves.
"It was completely bungled," said Peter Colsante, director of the Calvert Gallery in Washington. He listed 18 paintings and furniture and art pieces in the auction and sold "not a nickel. It represents a loss of a couple of thousand dollars for us."
Tempers grew short as the three-day affair ground on. Carl Fadeley, a Leesburg dealer, came screaming in protest to the auction area yesterday afternoon after Behar showed on the screen a small black-and-white photograph of a colorful 17th Century Venetian cabinet that Fadeley said was worth $25,000.
""Get that damn thing off," yelled Fadeley as he jumped up and down just outside camera range. Behar complied.
Fadeley and other dealers said they could recall only two pieces being sold at the auction. Ruza of Artnet said Sunday final sales figures were not compiled. Yesterday she and Behar did not return a reporter's phone calls.
Ruza said Artnet had spent between $30,000 and $40,000 advertising the show, which she conceded was a failure. She blamed in part Capital Centre officials, who she contended had refused to help promote the event.
But Capital Centre public relations director Bob Zurfluh denied Ruza's contention.
"It was a four-wall rental, meaning the Cap Centre was not a co-promoter and not in any way, shape or form involved," said Zurfluh. "We offered our services and they (Artnet) didn't want them."
By all accounts, the antique show itself was one of the biggest and finest ever to come to the Washington area. Items ranged from vintage cars to Victorian furniture to oriental art objects.
Antique Buyers International of Madison Avenue in New York brought a priceless display of oriental textiles that were not for sale, along with a $75,000 wool rug woven for the Shah of Iran.
Virtually no one saw the display or the 30 rugs the store had for sale.
"We had one nibble this morning and that's it," said Leslie Smith of Antique Buyers, who estimated the shop lost between $7,000 and $8,000 in expenses, including $2,000 in rug insurance.
"It was one of the loveliest shows I've ever seen," said Bob Waldron, a Washington interior designer. "It's just too bad nobody saw it."