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The world is drowning in dishes.

Baby boomers are inheriting multiple sets from mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and in-laws. Many have so much china, on top of their own wedding sets, they don't know where to store it or what to do with it.

They don't want to junk it but the generations behind them seem to have no use for 12 five-piece place settings of fine china and additional mystery pieces that seem to have been made for a style of formal entertaining now quaintly in the past.

The result is that beautiful sets of vintage and antique fine china are going begging, many stamped with the same blue-chip manufacturers - Lenox, Gorham, Wedgewood and Spode - as those selling new in different patterns for $50 a plate at Macy's.

Phyllis Winterhawk, of ELS Estate Liquidation Service in Santa Rosa,lamented that it's gotten increasingly difficult to sell china at any price. She said she has brought a beautiful set of antique German Meissen — 12 place settings, three platters, a tureen and serving bowls, not to mention bullion or soup bowls — to three different estate sales, dropping the price from $650 down to $350. Still no takers.

"There's just a whole era that has gone by the wayside, that's for darn sure." she said.

All those dishes present a great opportunity for savvy shoppers with a taste for finer things. It's now actually affordable to have a set of formal china you use only on holidays and special occasions - like Thanksgiving.

"Depending on the pattern and maker you could buy a set of china for under $200 or maybe $225," said Susan Gardner, who has a longtime estate sale business in Sonoma County.

Or, as an alternative, you can incorporate pieces from different sets. Mixing and matching, done tastefully and with care, makes for a more visually appealing table, says Joan Papathakis, a Santa Rosa interior designer, who has inherited several sets and likes to mix them up in creative ways.

For those who may have inherited multiple sets — perhaps even incomplete or missing pieces — this design trick is the way to repurpose what you have with an updated look. To lift the tabletop out of the 1950s you can add a few more contemporary pieces in the same color scheme or in clear glass, and perhaps finish it with some decorations or napkins that add a little bling.

"Your table doesn't have to match. And people kind of know that but they're still afraid and don't know what to do if they don't all match," said Shax Riegler, features editor of "House Beautiful" magazine and author of the new book, "Dish," an illustrated homage to plates, from paper and pottery to fine china. The book details the history of china, the different types and patterns as well as the care and repair of old china.

Even if you don't buy a full set, think of getting a set of matching bowls, or a full set of dinner plates or salad plates.

Pair a solid color plate with a patterned plate that picks up some of the solid color. Or vice versa. Or pair a patterned or solid color plate with a clear glass bowl. Another option is to choose dinner plates with just a rim of color and then match those with patterned salad plates or bowls that pick up the color in the rimmed plate.

Riegler said old "blue and white" or "flow blue," a popular look among many makers starting in the early 19th century, can easily be mixed and matched. You could even use different plates from different sets and it would still come together.

"I know someone who is young and more daring and they have all these old souvenir plates, a whole collection of them," Riegler said. "And they actually serve food on them. Every person gets a different plate. It's funky but its really fun and then everyone talks about what plate they have and it's a fun way to spark conversation."

Papathakis rarely pulls out her old china and glassware for every day, but she enjoys playing mix-and-match around the holidays.

For a Thanksgiving setting this year, she used her mother's Old Ivory china as her base dinner plates. On top of those she placed her mother's red Cranberry Glass salad plates and water glasses, dating back to the early 1940s.

She updated the old china with solid color gold chargers ($5.99 apiece at Pier 1.) Then she added a bit of bling to the table setting with new napkins woven with glittery gold and dark red thread. As a centerpiece, she added sparkly ornaments inside a clear glass hurricane candle holder.

Also to keep it from looking too retro, she dispensed with the formal linen tablecloth and instead arranged new placemats in a red leaf pattern as a centerpiece and scattered fake and real fall leaves and tiny pine cones and seedpods collected from her neighborhood.

Riegler said there's a virtue to old china that makes it worth preserving, even as style and dining habits change.

"Some of the older stuff is more beautiful than anything being made now," he said "The food gets eaten, the candles burn down. The flowers wither. But the china is the stuff that sticks around and you have forever."

<i>Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.