Thrill of the chase

Art collecting - Who is the first to go for the kill on the auction floor? Rosie Millard on the prim

Collectors are the often unsung but vital third side of the triangle that is the art world. We all know about artists and galleries, but collectors are a relatively unknown quantity, even though their existence ensures the livelihood of the other two.

Having one's own private art collection is extremely desirable and chic, and is not at all the same as bunging a few paintings up in the sitting room. "What a wonderful addition to your art collection," someone said to me after I had won the Tracey Emin rosette depicted here at a Tate art quiz. Yes, but no, but yes. I'd love to think I had an art collection, but one Emin does not a Saatchi Gallery make.

I'd need to be a bit more like my friend, the collector and former gallerist Mary-Jane Aladren, whose north London walls are crammed with immaculate pieces of contemporary art. "I think I am a collector because I intrinsically want to admire. I like admiring things, and people. I want to marvel at things and be amazed by how clever something is, or how it has been conceived and brought together," says Aladren, who collects with her barrister husband, Glen Davis. Together, they go on scouting trips to young galleries or artist-curated shows in London, New York and elsewhere, picking up paintings, sculpture, video works and installations by people who are about to make it big, or who have just done so.

"We have recently come back from being thoroughly naughty in New York, buying two pieces from private galleries and pursuing four others from PS1 MoMA," says Aladren. "Glen has been collecting for 15 years and I've been collecting seriously for ten, but for the past six years we have been collecting together." Indeed, collecting as a double act appears to be the norm in the contemporary art world. I ask her what has been her best purchase. "Ten years ago, I bought a painting on paper by James Siena, who is now with Pace Wildenstein in New York. That's a good sign."

It would appear, however, that Aladren is something of an anomaly. "Most of my clients are male," says Bernard Jacobson, whose Cork Street gallery specialises in high-end British and American art from the 1940s to the present day. "There are women collectors, but 90 per cent of the time it's the male who does the passionate buying. As for couples, I usually find that when a man gets a wife to come and look at whatever he is interested in, we lose the sale. I suppose it has a lot to do with the men having the money. Men make the money and they buy art or fast cars or whatever. It's as simple as that." Men have a visceral pleasure in acquiring art, says Jacobson, which is not usually matched in women. "Very rarely do I have women coming in who seem passionate about art. It's virtually a sexual thing. Maybe it's a sexual substitute! Women will maybe tolerate it, but it's usually the man who says 'Oh God, I LOVE that'. It's a very male thing, particularly in America."

According to the art market expert Godfrey Barker, widows are fantastic collectors. "Like Barbara Piasecka Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson heiress," he says. "But in the market for old master paintings, I can't think of a single woman collector who acts on her own. And there is one market where there are no women collectors at all, which is silver. I think they think they might have to clean it. As for women collectors in the British modern and contemporary art market, I can only think of Janet de Botton."

Louisa Buck - the author of Market Matters, an analysis of the art business, and a forthcoming handbook on how to collect contemporary works - insists that a great many women have a great deal of say in what gets bought in the contemporary art world. "Women may be working in conjunction with their husbands, but to say the market is dominated by men is not true. Women definitely have as much power. They may not always hold the purse strings, but they will have as much say as their husbands. And often they go solo - for instance, Ingvild Gotz, who is one of the world's leading collectors of contemporary art."

And yet Buck does believe there is a difference between the ways men and women operate. "Men can be more adversarial than women," she says. "I think they have more of the old hunter-gatherer zest. They like the thrill of the chase, pitting their wits against the dealers and getting first in the queue. Also, men do it more for pure investment purposes. I think women are more considered."

"It is really time that women stopped treating themselves as a minority spe-cies," snorts Barker. "Women happen to be human beings as well as women. Twenty-five years of art history have been wasted isolating a group of artists who have nothing in common apart from being female. Did you know that there is a crazy women-only gallery opening in London this week? I have received an invitational blurb to the opening night that implies men will be invited as a sort of special extra, not as part of the human race.

"Why do I hate this approach so much?" Barker asks. "Women want to be seen as victims in some way that I cannot get at. If there was ever something that needed to be kicked, it is that great art is totally independent of gender. And that goes for great art collections."

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.