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Taste: `Look, think, take your time' - the secret to collecting

Sotheby's contemporary art curator Janice Blackburn talks to John Windsor about buying a collector's item
Sotheby's has appointed a private collector, Janice Blackburn, to curate its first selling exhibition of contemporary decorative arts (which runs for a week, from 6 February). Her architect-designed home in Hampstead could be mistaken for a gallery, with its polished floorboards and sparsely displayed, named artefacts: curvaceous tables and chairs by Ron Arad and Mary Little; an exotic piece of plumbing by Fred Baier that serves as a double bed.

There are 77 artists' names in the exhibition catalogue - furniture-makers, ceramicists, glass-blowers, jewellers and lighting wizards, most of them virtually unknown to the public, but all well known to Ms Blackburn and her husband, David, a lawyer and property developer, who have winkled them out in a search-and-buy operation that has spanned 15 years.

With young home-makers eager to buy works of art by up-and-comers, the couple's expertise is at a premium. London auctioneers are competing fiercely for the "modern design" market and Sotheby's has copied Bonhams, which held its first annual decorative arts selling exhibition - or "tag sale" in art market jargon -in 1992. There is no bidding. This is fixed- price retailing, with purchases replaced from stock. Dealers, needless to say, are livid.

Ms Blackburn's secret? She makes it sound simple. Her advice, after the ritual incantation of "buy for love, not for investment" was: "look, think, and take your time".

How many novice collectors feel an urge to snap up that vase or brooch before someone else gets it? Ms Blackburn says: "You may miss one or two pieces, but if the artists are worth anything, they are not going to go away. Give yourself time to think. Do you really like it?

"For example, we first saw Mary Little's furniture [often "dressed" and humanoid-looking; bought by design museums] 11 years ago at her degree show at the Royal College of Art. We loved a wooden chair of hers, but did not buy. Five years later we noticed her name at a Crafts Council exhibition - and bought.

"As for Ron Arad [tables with glass tops and twisted metal legs; hollow, welded steel armchairs that sell ex-studio for pounds 9,000 plus] we found his work a bit of a shock. Most people we knew thought it was a joke. But we went back to his studio time after time, just to look. He must have been sick of the sight of us. Now, if I had to pick the person in the selling exhibition whose work is most important, I'd pick Ron."

And before the thinking? "If you have no confidence in your own taste, then look at more and more art works. That way, you will also learn to appreciate the work that is unique, unlike any other."

Where to look? A surprising number of names in Sotheby's exhibition are graduates of the RCA - described by Ms Blackburn as "a hotbed, getting better and better". She spots them at the college's annual degree shows in June. "No need to buy immediately," she reiterates (and degree shows do tend to be overpriced), "take the exhibitors' cards and keep in touch with them."

The most striking work at last year's RCA degree show for Ms Blackburn was Kate Wilkinson's costume jewellery made from tinplate pill boxes, strands of plastic and glass beads. "I homed in on her," she says. A spiky Wilkinson necklace, worn round the neck of Joan Bakewell as she presented the Turner prize in December, stole the show.

"Whenever I see a degree show advertised," says Ms Blackburn, "I do my damnedest to go to it." That goes for Central St Martin's School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths as well as the RCA. Then there is the New Designers exhibition, held each July at the Business Design Centre in Islington, where graduates of out-of-London colleges display their work. Her discoveries there have led her on a trail to textile studios in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Another, unglamorous source of talent is the Crafts Council's illustrated index of craftspeople. Ms Blackburn discovered Fred Baier in it.

She describes most of her finds in the forthcoming selling exhibition as "wild cards". They include the ceramicist Julia Schrader (teddy with porcelain spikes), Nina Leck (metal handbags), Emily Bates (textiles with human hair) and Jo Gordon (outrageous hats).

"I don't buy safe things," she says."Safe is boring."

But in today's market, isn't it often the wildest-looking things that are the safest buys?

"I don't buy for investment", she insists, "I buy because I love the work. But if you have a good eye and confident taste and buy what you like, you've got a good chance of picking winners."

That's more like it.

Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-493 8080). Some of the artists' work can be seen at the Crafts Council exhibition `Objects of Our Time', until 16 February, at 44a Pentonville Road, Islington, London N1 (0171-278 7700).