Going, going gone! An auction of American antiques

``IT'S just a thoroughly fetching object,'' said the tall, dark-haired young man. That's how he felt about the late 19th-century ``portrait of a cat,'' whose price had been estimated at between $500 and $700. And that, apparently, is why he had bid $6,000 for it at auction. But he didn't find it quite fetching enough to bid $6,100 -- the price for which it was sold a few seconds later at Robert W. Skinner Inc., the largest firm of auctioneers and appraisers in New England, whose 1984 sales totaled $9.7 million.

This 8-by-91/2-inch painting of a white cat peering through a simulated wooden opening is an example of Americana -- fine American furniture and decorative and household objects, usually from the 18th and 19th centuries. The gallery holds about six auctions a year in this category, which is recognized as its specialty.

During the two-hour preview period before the auction began, Jack Partridge, an antiques dealer from North Edgecomb, Maine, spoke about the craze for Americana that has recently swept the antiques market.

``Business is excellent,'' said Mr. Partridge, examining a 1770s mahogany dining table that later sold for $15,000. ``There's a shortage of antiques, and reproductions cost a great deal. Also, as soon as you've bought a reproduction, all you have is a piece of secondhand furniture. With antiques, people can get a 100 percent profit.''

In addition to the two hours on the day of the auction, the gallery had been open for preview the day before. Prospective buyers could literally paw over the merchandise, taking drawers out of desks to examine their joints, turning tables upside down to inspect their feet, and fondling the nap of Persian rugs.

One of the most unusual pieces for sale was a Corinthian carved capital dated 1795-97 from the colonnade of the Massachusetts State House, designed by Charles Bulfinch. This imposing piece, standing about three feet high smack in the middle of the gallery, had been valued at between $5,000 and $7,500. One of the surprises of the auction was that it sold for only $4,000.

When the sale was almost over, Nancy Skinner, president of the company, was generally pleased with the day's activity. ``Overall it's done well,'' she said. Although some items had fetched less than their estimates, others -- such as a tall, painted pine-grain Federal case clock, estimated at between $6,000 and $8,000 and sold for $13,000 -- did exceptionally well.

And there were also items priced within the range of the average homeowner. A young woman from Portsmouth, R.I., was delighted with a pair of bell metal andirons she purchased for $250.

Although some private buyers hesitate to bid against professional dealers, Mrs. Skinner feels their concern is unfounded. ``Retail people don't realize there are an awful lot of things the ordinary person could buy and do very well with,'' she explained.

But when the bidding gets going, a cool head is essential. Often the auctioneers will turn from one bidder to another, successively raising the price by $100 or $1,000 as fast as their lips can form the numbers.

One dealer, who had stopped bidding at $1,400 on a pine painted blanket chest from Page County, Va., dated 1822 -- which sold for $1,500 -- was asked if the fast pace of the bidding made him nervous.

``Oh, yeah,'' was his reply. ``That's why it's fun.''

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