'Philatelists are not normal people]' says Caron de Vico cheerily. 'They look at stamps and they say oooh, that one's so sexy]' Ms de Vico, the managing director of Harmers, one of London's leading philatelic auction houses, is spearheading a crusade to revitalise the image of stamp collecting. The key, she feels, lies in making stamps attractive to women.

'People have this idea that it's a fuddy-duddy thing,' says Caron. 'At the international level you see some extremely glamorous people, lovely women, beautifully dressed, and very handsome men, but they do keep a low profile. In the main, philatelists are pretty reserved.'

According to Graham Childs, the firm's philatelic director, women have natural advantages for stamp collecting. 'When it comes to arranging stamps on the page women have a better eye than men, more artistic. People think that stamp collectors are all 99-year-old men with zimmer frames and pipes, but it's an absorbing hobby and not necessarily just for men. Though in many cases, there are collectors like that,' admits Graham, who has Dickensian sideburns and started his first collection, specialising in stamps from Sarawak in Borneo, when he was eight.

So why hasn't stamp collecting caught on with women before? 'It's a mystery. Perhaps men can shut themselves away in their studies or offices and play with their stamps, while the ladies have to do more mundane things.' Graham thinks a thematic approach to philately - collecting stamps with similar subjects rather than sticking to a particular country - has potential feminine appeal. 'If you want to collect penguins, for example, we've had lots of penguins,' he says enthusiastically.

As the glamorous face of philately, Caron de Vico has an elegant auburn bob, immaculate red-lacquered nails and a smart black and white suit with enormous gold buttons. The Harmers offices are equally smart, and far removed from stamp collecting's down-at-heel image. 'I've tried to humanise them a little - it's the woman's touch. The first thing I did when I came here was put down some oriental carpets - they didn't know what had hit them,' she explains.

The auctions themselves are rather low-key affairs. Earlier this month Harmers' small green-velvet-draped auction room in New Bond Street was packed with elderly businessmen in pin-striped suits and highly polished shoes for an auction of international stamps and covers. An occasional gentle, well-bred harrumph of surprise rippled round the room when bidding opened higher than expected, but the atmosphere was generally restrained. The glitz was evident at the party afterwards, where the bidders and their fur-coated wives were served with champagne, canapes, and foie gras by smart waiters.

For those in search of an instant collection, the auction featured a set of albums complete with several thousand stamps, sold for pounds 10,450, or a collection of over 12,000 Japanese postcards which went for pounds 60,500. Specialists could pick up an 1899 Great Barrier Reef Pigeongram on special flimsy paper for pounds 1,100, or a note from a wartime field post office; examples of the famous Penny Black can be found for as little as pounds 25.

Valuable stamps can mean big business. Harmers has just sold an 1847 1d Mauritian stamp, a smudgy fragment of orange paper, for pounds 200,000. Caron refused to let it appear on The Big Breakfast on Channel 4.

'It seemed like a very . . . young programme, and stamps are not a frivolous subject. They are a very serious subject. Centimetre for centimetre, gram for gram, stamps are the most expensive things in the world,' she says solemnly.

The decline of philately has had considerable social consequence. 'In the old days,' sighs Caron, 'fathers would sit down with their sons and daughters around the table and put their stamps into albums and talk about them. In fact the parents would be imparting knowledge to their children. Now the kids are stuck in front of the video or the television and there isn't the communication there used to be between a lot of parents and their children.'

Graham would like to see philatelic studies on the national curriculum. 'You learn about history, geography, colours, printing . . . When the Falklands war was on, if you asked a person in the street, they had no idea where the Falklands were. If you asked a stamp collector, they could tell you. When did Queen Victoria reign? When did Edward VII come to the throne? Were there stamps for Edward VIII? A stamp collector knows straight away.'

What are Graham's favourite stamps? 'I don't collect at the moment. It would be very difficult - a nice collection of Antigua might come in, and you'd think oh, those are lovely, I'd like to collect those - then the next day there might be a nice lot of Canada, and you'd think well, this looks even better than the Antigua collection . . . If I did have a collection, I would never have time to look at it anyway.'

Caron doesn't collect stamps either. She prefers little silver stamp boxes. 'To the serious philatelist they're just a sideline,' she admits. 'I think they must have been invented to keep philatelists' wives quiet.'

(Photograph omitted)