Up on the street, vendors loudly hawked digital watches, plastic ray guns and religious objects.
In the well-appointed basement of the downtown Biltmore, antique dealers from across the country and abroad quietly prepared to sell an equally disparate array of objects, including grandfather clocks, inlaid muskets, religious icons and items whose utilitarian value has been lost over the ages.
As the Wednesday evening preview of the Junior League of Los Angeles' 7th Annual Antiques Show approached, the dealers put on nice suits and refined smiles and straightened their postures.
(The show is open the public and continues at the Biltmore Hotel through Sunday.)
In the meantime, decked out in shorts and T-shirts and similarly casual attire, the dealers arranged the show's 45 booths, mingled with fellow aficionados and discussed the objects of their obsession with an enthusiasm that rivaled that of the vendors on the street.
A San Francisco dealer, for example, offers pieces of the "Nanking Cargo" recovered last year from a Dutch merchant ship that sank in the South China Sea around 1750. Admiring the subtlety of the blue-and-white design, he said he is offering a few saucers from that ship for $95 apiece, or a buyer can pick up 12 place settings for $24,000.
Another dealer displays French artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute's "Liliacees" watercolors; and a Santa Fe, N. M., gallery specializing in American and classic Western paintings has Frederic Remingtons, Georgia O'Keeffes and--for $850,000--Gilbert Stuart's 1801 "Washington at Dorchester Heights."
The show also boasts specialists in more esoteric nooks of the antiques market. A Fallbrook physician, for instance, deals exclusively in antique wine paraphernalia--everything from an old French vineyard tool he'll part with for $75 to $350 corkscrews and gilded grape scissors priced at $780.
Gene Switzer, of Kansas City, Mo., displays one of the more eclectic collections in an eclectic show--including a mahogany squirrel cage from the English Regency period priced at $845.
Switzer doesn't know why anyone would want to carry a squirrel. "The English did funny things," he said, as he sat on a 19th-Century French sofa drinking a can of Budweiser. "There's a carrying case for a goose over there," he added. "Although that's French."
In the booth beside Switzer's, Andre Ruzhnikov sells Russian Faberge items and intricately painted and gilded religious icons at prices as high as $100,000.
Soviet museums display excellent collections of icons, but private acquisition is officially frowned upon in his homeland, said Ruzhnikov, who left the Soviet Union 10 years ago after marrying an Englishwoman.
"It's not a crime, but it's risky collecting icons (in the Soviet Union). . ." he said. "Amassing something, especially amassing religious art, is difficult. As soon as the KGB hears about icons their ears prick up."
The Soviets have cut the flow of such national treasures from the country "down to a trickle," but that hasn't decreased the thirst of the capitalist market, Ruzhnikov said. "Collecting icons is very contagious. Once you buy one, chances are you're going to go into it all the way."
Generally, "the market for antiques is very good but very tight--the best things are selling the quickest," said Russell Carrell, who has been in the antique business since he got a deal on "seven or eight barrels" of old objects as a young Navy sailor. Now 70, Carrell said he has been managing antique shows for 34 years.
Among the current trends in antique collecting is an increasing interest on both coasts in garden objects and remnants of architecture from ages past. "And antique tools are also very important," he said.
In fact, many pieces with what might be considered a more masculine appeal have been selling increasingly well in the past five to seven years, Carrell said, pointing out the antique firearms, crossbows, swords, armor and similar non-pacifistic items offered by one dealer.
Another dealer, Daniel Stein, 37, said he represents the "gentlemen's library look," examples of which include a long brass telescope, a collection of framed 19th-Century portraits of boxers and matched celestial and terrestrial globes from the early 1800s.
Stein is an attorney, but "I got fed up with litigation and decided to follow my heart" into the realm of antiques.
Jeffrey Davis followed a similar path. Two years ago, he retired from the exporting business to pursue what he calls "the quest."
Each year now Davis "makes two trips to England and Italy and drives thousands of miles" in search of his own holy grail: "Fascinating little accessories, particularly wooden objects known as treen."
Davis searched his booth at length before deciding that his favorite object is an implement delicately carved from a piece of beechwood, dating back perhaps 170 years.
"I just happen to like the tactile nature of wood, the touch," he said, gently turning the piece in his hands.
And just what is the object?
"We don't know," he said with a shrug.
The Junior League hopes to raise $125,000 from the show, which continues today from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m and from noon until 6 p.m. on Sunday, said Candace Waldron, chairwoman of the event.
Los Angeles Antiques Show, the Biltmore Hotel, 506 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. General admission $8, includes color catalogue and unlimited readmission. Information: (213) 623-7360.