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Spirited buying at the Sotheby's auction of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate underscored a strong 1996 interest in celebrity memorabilia.

Of course, the $772,500 purchase by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger of a set of golf clubs inscribed "JFK Washington D.C." wasn't exactly a transaction by an average collector. Neither was the $2.6 million spent by the head of H.J. Heinz Co. on a 40-carat diamond engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis.Nonetheless, memorabilia fascination seems evident at all price levels and, perhaps even more importantly, the art market is also showing signs that it's alive and well. Collectors appear to be awakening from an early 1990s slumber.

Auction results of impressionist and modern art in recent weeks have been formidable, fueled by what auction houses call "middle market" buyers, rather than multimillion-dollar individual sales of past years. That's perceived as a sign of recovery, as is the fact that Asian buyers have reappeared for the first time since 1990.

For example, a recent Christie's auction of impressionist and modern art pulled in $76.1 million and only nine of 67 works failed to sell. An unidentified Asian buyer paid $7.1 million for the most valuable work, Monet's 1889 painting "Grain Stacks at Giverny, Morning Light." Meanwhile, a similar Sotheby's event garnered $64.5 million and only 10 of the 68 works failed to find buyers.

More average collectors also have opportunities. According to Kathleen Guzman, senior vice president with Christie's, prints are big sellers with younger collectors these days because one's money goes further than with paintings. Moving up to the hot, higher-priced names in the print category, Honore Daumier, Joan Miro, Alexander Caulder and Marc Chagall are best sellers likely to increase in value.

And then, of course, there's that addiction to celebrity memorabilia, as baby boomers and older Americans snap up sentimental items that remind them of their youth.

"We've sold everything imaginable, such as John Travolta's white suit from the film `Saturday Night Fever' and Frank Sinatra's mailbox (which, she noted, barely said Sinatra on it), each of those two items going for $150,000," said Guzman.

You must be careful, however. Consider the fact that memorabilia of early child film star Shirley Temple, quite expensive a decade ago, has precipitously fallen from favor.

It always makes sense to buy memorabilia that means something personally, advised Alan Bamberger, a San Francisco-based author whose "Art Talk" column appears in antique and collectible publications. For example, if you like classical music, seek out an autograph of your favorite composer.

"If you buy memorabilia or art only as an investment, they have no meaning to you and you're also less likely to understand why they're going up or down in value," counseled Bamberger. "Learn by visiting museums, talking to collectors, reading and developing an eye for what you find attractive."

By becoming acquainted with the area you're interested in, you're less likely to become "putty in the hands" of less scrupulous sellers, he said

"In paintings, good quality art that is fresh to the market and in good condition, such as a painting that's hung on Grandma's wall for 40 years, is bringing the most to the market these days," said Catherine Leonhard, American painting specialist with Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco.

Particularly popular lately have been American modern works from the 1920s through 1940s, Leonhard said, though collectors with more traditional tastes will still prefer choices such as the Hudson River school. The market for western U.S. art, which fell apart in the mid-1980s oil crunch, is firming up.

Christie's Guzman advises buying only items that you like and the best examples you can afford.

Avoid chipped or restored works. Never purchase anything at auction without carefully inspecting it before auction day and doing your homework. At your first auction, bring a notebook to make observations, not your checkbook.