THE taste for china figurines, once the playthings of Europe's princes, has largely descended to the level of the cheap knickknacks on a dime-store counter. Yet those minor masterpieces of the 18th century which survive today are attracting a growing band of devoted collectors willing to pay up to $15,000 apiece for their finds. One of the most successful, as the newly published catalogue of his Meissen china (Harvard University Press; $25) makes plain, is Manhattan's Irwin Untermyer.

Collector Untermyer, a longtime New York jurist, now retired at 70, inhabits a dark Fifth Avenue duplex crammed to its high ceilings with porcelains,...

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