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From left: Ceramics by Erik Bright, serving piece by Kristen Alexandra, and Christian Burchard baskets.
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The Gift of Art

Part event, part commerce, holiday-season art sales offer something for just about any budget

If you're a shopper drawn to the unusual, chances are good you gravitate toward holiday art sales, like the School of the Museum of Fine Arts December Sale. Art, after all, makes a great gift, because it's personal and often unique, and the sales themselves can contain enough action and drama to make them events in their own right. Artists like Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg have contributed art works to the Museum School sale, some of which have sticker prices as high as $10,000.

Fortunately, at the Museum School and at most other such sales, there's plenty to choose from for those of us buying holiday art gifts on a budget. At the Museum School, prices start at $5 for handmade greeting cards. Much of the jewelry, photographs, and prints, as well as the art made by students -- any one of whom could be the next Chuck Close -- rings up at under $100. Plus, there's always the chance you'll find great art at a bargain-basement price.

At an art sale in Cambridge years ago, I stumbled on a series of small sculptures by Tabitha Vevers, a favorite local artist of mine, each selling for $150 -- an astonishingly low price. I'm not an impulse buyer, and I didn't snatch one up; I have nothing to prove that it wasn't a dream. The just-closed ''Small Works" show in Cambridge, a fund-raiser for the Maud Morgan Visual Art Center, included a print by Michael Mazur, a luminary among Boston-area artists; the print was priced at $400, a fraction of what his work commands in commercial galleries.

In addition to the Museum School, the Massachusetts College of Art holds a holiday sale of work by students and alumni. The Fort Point Arts Community, which has one of the better alternative galleries in Boston and a slew of serious artists in the neighborhood, also mounts an annual sale. LynnArts has put a $300 ceiling on gifts at its Fabulous Holiday Show and Sale.

If you're willing to expand your search into the vast world of crafts, you have even more to choose from. Every holiday season, the Store@DeCordova, at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, expands into its lobby and stages its Artists' Market. Two years ago, I found a festive and eccentric stuffed penguin in a jester's costume, with a rounded bottom and a built-in bell, and scooped him up for my niece for less than $35. It was a well-crafted toy with character, not the type of plastic franchised claptrap you'd find at a chain store. Cultural Survival's Winter Bazaar offers indigenous art from around the world, including Tibetan rugs, Afghan weavings, and Navajo jewelry. A handmade Guatemalan bracelet goes for $5, but the rugs, made in Nepal by Tibetan refugees, can go for $3,000.

Also at the higher end is Crafts at the Castle, a fund-raiser for Family Service of Greater Boston. There's an admission charge just to see the show. Even if that $15 -- good for the whole weekend -- is all you spend, it gets you into an exhibition of jaw-dropping beauty and craftsmanship, featuring glass, jewelry, ceramics, woodwork, and textiles by some of the best in the business. Prices start at $50, and can go as high as $15,000.

Beauty does have a price tag, but as most of these shows illustrate, it doesn't always have to break the bank.

Upcoming art sales
Crafts at the Castle
Park Plaza Castle, Columbus Ave. and Arlington St.
Dec. 3-4, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Dec. 5, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $15, $12 seniors, children under 12 free

Eleventh Annual Artists Market
Through Dec. 31
DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park
51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln
Hours through Dec. 23: Mon.-Thurs, 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Fort Point Holiday Sale
249 A St.
Dec. 10, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Dec. 11, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

LynnArts Fabulous Holiday Show and Sale
25 Exchange St., Lynn
Dec. 4-Jan. 6. Mon., Tues., Fri., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Wed., Thurs., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Massachusetts College of Art Holiday Sale
Tower Building Lobby
621 Huntington Ave.
Dec. 6-11, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

School of the Museum of Fine Arts December Sale
230 The Fenway
Dec. 2, noon-8 p.m.; Dec. 3-5, noon-6 p.m.

25th Annual Cultural Survival Winter Bazaar
Pound Hall, Harvard University
1563 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge
Dec. 4, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Dec. 5, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.