One of the best-kept secrets of this summer has to be that antique prices are finally down. From California to Cape Cod the reports are flowing in, and their message is that if you have ever considered buying antiques, this year is the time.
One dealer put it graphically: ''I'm carrying a full inventory. Have been ever since winter. Every auction I go to I see pieces selling for less than I paid, but I'm hurting for capital right now. Have to watch somebody else buy them for now.''
The buying public has long memories. Many recall the headlines of last year that publicized record prices at the auction galleries. They assume it's still so. The truth is that, while the truly great pieces will still bring record prices, the average or lesser-quality antique is selling at prices lower than any seen in the last two years.
The news that a Newport, R.I., mahogany blockfront desk sold for $350,000, or a piece of American silver for $240,000 at Christie's Park Avenue showroom in June, overshadows the news that this summer New England drop-leaf tables of the period 1800 to 1840 have been selling at auction for $100 to $150, less than the price of a new one.
Few note that at that same June auction at Christie's, where a world-record price for American silver was established, an ornate Renaissance Revival period Victorian marble-topped desk and bookcase of walnut sold for a paltry $1,200 (plus 10 percent). Anyone who thinks that isn't a bargain has only to visit a few designer furniture showrooms.
Probably the best example of inaction by individual dealers at auction came at a Cape Cod auction in May. There a group of dealers bought a spectacular chest-on-chest for $22,500. It was reported that at the later reauctioning of the piece among these same dealers the chest brought $35,000.
It isn't just among the higher-priced antiques that one can find bargains. At an outdoor auction in Vermont, an iron broiler that two years ago would have fetched $125 sold for $45. An armed ladder-back chair, perhaps built as early as 1700-1710, sold for $85. Less than a year ago such a chair would have brought $ 350 to $500.
Don't dismiss the bargains in the oak-furniture field, either. Pressed-back chairs of the period 1890-1920 that brought $75 to $85 each in any city shop a year ago have been observed selling for as low as $25 each.
As one dealer at a recent auction noted, ''Some say there's a recession on. From the prices I've seen, I'd say it was a full-scale depression.'' Call it what you will, if it's antiques you're after, or just plain bargains that are priced competitively with new merchandise, today's wise buyer should not pass up the auctions.
Sam Pennington, editor-publisher of the Maine Antique Digest, noted in his July editorial: ''It seems to me that one of the untold secrets of the antiques market (which really is a multiplicity of markets) is how few people it actually reaches compared to how many might or should be interested in the things this market has to offer.''