Swedish country. What your living room needs is a wide-bellied clock, a pickled floor, and a painted chest

MOST collectors and antiques buffs will happily admit to cherishing the chase for a special object or piece of furniture. Whether that search translates into a quest for tin soldiers, inlaid writing boxes, or velvet pincushions, the impetus to find the best or most unusual of a particular category can become a raison d'^etre for travel. Parisian flea markets attract those who crave eclectic offbeat treasures, while London's Camden Passage and Portobello Road are historic trading points. But as fickle styles change, and yesterday's layers of chintz give way to the world's current love affair with painted country furniture and the spare Swedish look, France and England no longer monopolize the scene.

Almost overnight, trendy decorators are re-creating the innocent look immortalized by painters Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn: Windows are dressed in romantic white linen, and floors are pickled to look freshly scrubbed. Vividly painted cupboards brighten demure gray Gustavian pieces (dating from the 18th-century reign of King Gustav III). Wide-bellied clocks smile beneath fluttering wooden ribbons. Bowls of wildflowers grace transparently colored tables and chests.

But those collectors who come here find that the simple rural furniture, once considered a giveaway, is no longer cheap. As a rule, it is less costly than in America, and bargains can be found at remote auctions. But after Christie's London sale of Scandinavian art set record-breaking prices last February, Swedish antiques skyrocketed in value. International style-shapers say this is only the beginning.

Prospective buyers with limited time should head for Stockholm. First, take your own lesson in design by visiting the Nordic Museum and the open-air museum at Skansen. Within walking distance of each other on Djurgarden, both institutions feature excellent examples of furniture from all districts of the country in simulated room settings. There are both rare and typical examples of distinctive rustic painting done between the 17th and late 19th centuries on walls, ceilings, and liberally applied to caskets, jugs, bowls, chests, and enormous clothes cupboards. Many are initialed and dated to commemorate engagements, weddings, and birthdays. Geometrics resemble weaving, while the acanthus motif extends delicate tendrils, leaves, and blossoms around doors and drawers.

Vigorous colors create exquisite contrasts; deep honey-brown is swirled with black; white streaks gray or clear blue; red, green, and yellow appear with frequency. The thin, almost transparent technique of overlay, executed by untutored and mostly anonymous craftsmen, is a lively art form infused with fresh impulses and such invariably strong regional characteristics that it's usually possible to tell at a glance where a particular piece comes from.

Once you've seen the best at the museums, comparison shopping is a good idea. During the auction season (active all year except July and August), country antiques appear regularly in mixed sales, and bidding in English can be arranged in advance. Foreign buyers must be cautioned, however, that new laws forbid export of certain museum-quality pieces, those considered essential to Swedish culture and anything built before approximately 1830. Permits are required for export of other goods valued at more than 50,000 kroner ($7,500).

Stockholm's antique shops are many and varied. Stores on the west side, near the picturesque "Ostermalms Saluhall, offer both old and reproduction furniture. There are fashionable establishments tucked around Bukowski's Auction House, near the Grand Hotel, and others are scattered within the curving alleys of the Old Town. Almost all dealers speak English.

Dr. Draken and Ralph Bengtsson focus only on naive or painted country pieces.

I found Bengtsson's quite by accident one cold March evening. It was 6 o'clock, and darkness had settled like a gauzy veil over the city's copper rooftops. But within the protection of the Old Town's narrow streets, what little light there was cast an almost fuzzy glow. At the flattish top of the hill behind the Royal Palace, I followed the lure of a single yellow light to a shop piled high with antiques. After I tapped on the icy window, a young man with curly blond hair opened the door.

It was obvious that he was on his way out, but he cheerfully agreed to allow me a quick look. Tall painted cupboards sported deeply angled bonnets and wooden latched doors. Naively painted roses cascaded down raised panels. There were sleigh baskets, cradles, and sturdy traveling chests proudly labeled ``1796 - Johan Johnsson'' or ``1843 - Gunnar Lundberg.'' A thick-planked, mossy-green table surrounded by six straight-legged Gustavian chairs held a roughly carved heart-shaped wooden bowl. Patiently, Ralph Bengtsson explained nuances of design, idiosyncratic patterns, and preferences of regional painters. We studied roses and tulips; swirls and frames; graining and stippling. Generously he shared addresses of other dealers and dates of furniture fairs.

On subsequent days I followed the antiques trail in and around Stockholm. Dr. Draken's cheerful shop, also in the Old Town, offered another treasure-trove of country furniture. Handmade farm implements, painted tools, bowls, and small cupboards were tempting; the harvest baskets, irresistible. At Bukowski's Thursday auction, my bids on dated, marked pewter tankards were surprisingly successful.

The last time Stockholm appeared on my horizon, I came away with Mr. Bengtsson's 100-year-old heart-shaped bowl. It is a touching symbol of a farmer's love in the remote north, while Gunnar Lundberg's traveling chest of bluest blue spells indescribable courage. Together, their simplicity represents a remarkable heritage, which makes both hunting and ownership a joy.

If you go

Here are four antiques shops where painted furniture can be found in Stockholm: Draken Antiques, K"opmantorget 2, 08-20-26-38. Kulan's Antiques (Ralph Bengtsson), Skomakargatan 24B, 08-10-25-23. Sn"ackan Antiques, Trangsund 8, 08-20-51-26. Stortorgets Antiques, Skomakargatan 24A, 08-21-58-00.

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