In LA you're only as big as the value of your collection. Cameron Docherty reports on the latest celebrity fad
Apart from winning an Oscar, there's little that incites Hollywood stars with the spirit of one-upmanship more than their art collection.

They are all at it: Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, Disney's Michael Eisner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Spielberg ....

Few are more dedicated in the pursuit of art than Dennis Hopper, who has been whizzing around London galleries in the search of bargains.

The actor - whose enormous corrugated iron Los Angeles home is stuffed with contemporary art - said: "I'm only here for a very short visit. I'm here to see art. I've been to the Serpentine and the Tate and I'm going to the Francis Bacon exhibition next."

The competition is fierce. Does David Geffen have the biggest collection? "He has without any doubt put together the greatest collection of Abstract Expressionist and Pop art in Los Angeles and maybe in the United States," maintains art dealer and gallery owner Larry Gagosian.

Is it Michael Ovitz, briefly President of Walt Disney, who added a temple- like gallery atop his Brentwood house? Dealer and movie-maker Arne Glimcher said: "He's a collector whose interests range from 20th-century to Durer and Rembrandt etchings, and he also has terrific Ming furniture and Persian carpets. He's a connoisseur of art, and that's exciting."

Those who aren't collecting are talking about those who are. "I think Jack Nicholson has one of the best collections out here," says Ed Ruscha, the Los Angeles artist who made the HOLLYWOOD sign an international Pop icon in the 1960s. Nicholson's reported $100 million collection includes "some pretty good impressionists, a few nice surrealists, and a bunch of Tamara de Lempickas left over from the Angelica Huston days". "Steve Martin collects modern art with discernment," says a Los Angeles curator who hopes some of it will hang in her museum someday.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted a Stella in the worst way," says Venice artist Charles Arnoldi. "A big metal relief painting, because he likes big, powerful things. But he couldn't bring himself to spend the money."

"Oliver Stone just bought a big Andy Warhol," reports a Los Angeles dealer. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, says a New York dealer, "buy perfectly nice, conservative prints, like Edward Hopper etchings".

Harrison Ford, according to a friend, "is quietly acquiring Bonnards and Vuillards". And Steven Spielberg, says his business partner David Geffen, "has impressionist pictures, Magritte, Hopper, and lots and lots of Rockwells. He loves Norman Rockwell. It inspires him."

Of course, Hollywood stars and moguls have been buying art ever since Elizabeth Taylor's father opened a gallery in Hollywood in the early 1940s. But there is something curiously different about today's Hollywood collectors, and it's not just that there are so many more of them and that they have so much money. It's something more essential, something that makes them so deadly serious about their mangled Stellas and bleeding Schnabels.

"People in the entertainment business have a reverence for art," says Marc Glimcher, a dealer at PaceWildenstein. "They don't scoff at it. They don't think it's a joke." Maybe that's because art has become the religion of Hollywood, the pure, uplifting faith for what is probably the most secularised and richest group of people in the world: the makers, packagers, and marketers of American popular culture. "Movies are their commerce," says an observer, "but art is their religion. It gives them a seriousness which their work doesn't, and it cuts them apart from the pack."

The producer Daniel Melnick, a major minimalist collector, has said that his 1980 Agnes Martin painting, Untitled Number 9, gives him "an enormous sense of calm and tranquil insight into my Taoist readings". Former TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy says, "I can sit in front of a painting for an hour and look at it." The walls of his sky-high Bel-Air mansion are adorned with elegant Ruschas, Rauschenbergs, and Diebenkorns.

"Los Angeles is driven by insecurity, and everything that happens here - on an individual or corporate level - has to do with insecurity," observes Richard Koshalek, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "There's a need to collect here, to come in contact with art and artists, that's greater than you see in other parts of the country. It's a way of expressing yourself through art, collecting to overcome that, all-persuasive insecurity. There's this feeling that Southern California is doomed, that nature is going to do even more damage, turn even more destructive."

Yet the lust for collecting is unabated. Brad Pitt has started to collect Tiffany lamps, Victoria Principal bought a "little Lucien Freud" on a recent trip to New York, Winona Ryder just spent a reported $20,000 on vintage photographs, and business is booming at the Tamara Bane Gallery on Melrose Avenue, where the work of actors Sylvester Stallone, Pierce Brosnan, and Barbara Carrera, fetches as much as $25,000, and Axel Rose, Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage, and Burt Reynolds line up for Oriental art costing as much as $35,000.