Antique prices may go up and down with fluctuations in the economy. But, as one expert observer points out: ''As long as people have a cent to spare, they'll be searching out antiques at the levels they can afford. The collecting instinct isn't easily dashed.''
One of the bellwethers of the current marketing season is the prestigious 29 th Annual Winter Antiques Show here, which this year will feature choice American, French, English, Italian, and Oriental selections from 73 American and European dealers. The show will run Jan. 2l through Jan. 30 at the Seventh Regiment Armory, and will attract a specialized audience looking for top quality. Expectations are generally optimistic.
Chairman of the Winter Antiques Show, interior designer Mario Buatta, finds that despite high prices, his clients still want ''something with age and charm.'' But he does have to admit that ''the only possible way I could ever finish a room these days, on what the average decoration budget is, is to intermingle good reproductions with fine antiques.'' And he still finds people interested in buying antiques for their investment appreciation, because they have read that fine 18th-century American furniture has been far better for investment over the last 24 years than the stock market. Many other experts contend that investment reasons for buying art and antiques have lessened considerably in the last year.
Angela Noel of the Childs Art Gallery in Boston, a show exhibitor, says she hears little investment talk these days. ''We are more aware of the low-key, true collectors who buy for love of the art and for the personal pleasure it gives them. We have had a very good year, and have sold high-quality pictures (from $10,000 up) quite quickly. It is the $1,200 to $5,000 range of art that has been slow. We are finding realist paintings in far greater demand. And for those who cannot afford a Childe Hassam, we see a whole interesting 'second tier' of Impressionists gaining increased appreciation.''
Elinor Gordon of Villanova, Pa., who will bring rare Chinese export porcelain to the show, says: ''This is the most unprecedented market I have ever seen. People talk hard times, but I had the biggest season of Christmas orders I have ever had, and a good year generally.'' She is bringing important orange Fitzhugh , Order of Cincinnati, American Eagle, and American ship pieces to New York, and expects to find no resistance to their prices.
An exhibitor of fine English antiques, Alastair A. Stair, chairman of Stair & Co. in New York, confirms that ''the best pieces are selling. We find it much easier to sell a fine, expensive piece than a less-costly medium-quality piece. And more and more of our customers are asking for Chippendale and Queen Anne, rather than later periods.'' One exquisite piece in the Stair space will be a black lacquer Queen Anne bureau-secretary with double dome, which will be priced at $175,000.
Although the worldwide sales of Sotheby Parke Bernet declined 40 percent over the same September-through-December period of last year, the sales of Christie's auction gallery were up for the same period, which was a sudden reversal in sales figures of the two largest New York auction houses. Sotheby's blamed the worldwide recession and changing market conditions during the 1981-82 season and a wait-and-see attitude on the part of consignors waiting to see a market upturn.
Sotheby officials point to a steady improvement in the art market over the last four months, which is apparent both at auction houses and among art dealers. They also indicate that there has been noticeable improvement in the jewelry and coin markets.
William J. Doyle says his auction galleries were down $9.2 million in sales When? from the previous year, ''indicative of continuing softness at the middle range of the market.'' ''This has been a season of unpredictables,'' he said. Christopher J. Weston, president of Phillips auction gallery, says, ''It's been an odd year for antiques with ups and downs, but quality and condition continue to count more than ever, and good goods always sell.''
Gray Boone, publisher of Antique Monthly and sponsor of the Annual World Antiques Market Conference to be held in New York Jan. 23-24, to coincide with the winter show, says the keynote address will be on ''the economy and the collector.'' As for business generally, ''We are getting mixed signals,'' she says. ''Things had picked up, but many dealers are still understandably concerned about business. Attendance was generally down at shows in 1982, but with interest rates coming down, dealers are cautiously optimistic. We feel the market will continue to recover in the months ahead. My feeling is that we are in a buyer's market, and that now is a good time to shop and buy, especially for those who are looking for nice old, but not rare, pieces with which to furnish their homes.''
Terry Kovel, of Cleveland, who with her husband, Ralph, writes books, columns , and price guides on antiques, says: ''The dealers we know have had a good year , because most of their customers are buying things for use and are not what is known as 'serious collectors,' who are another breed. Middlewestern prices that we see are holding level.
''Affordable collectibles, depression glass, and 1930s colored Fiestaware pottery continue in popularity and are going up modestly in price. Dolls are appreciating faster than most things today. And we see a market for fussier Victorian things, and for more formal 19th-century English pieces (which fashion magazines are now calling 'upscale English'). And we note that even limited-edition collector plates are holding their own. On the whole, it hasn't been a bad year for the dealers and auction houses that we observe.''