Art collectors don't get a lot of respect. One of them, however, now has a big bronze medal, a bright disc with a Georges Braque bird on it, which the Phillips Collection has publicly bestowed on Leonard A. Lauder of New York.

It wasn't just Lauder who was honored. When the first Duncan Phillips Medal was hung around his neck on Saturday, a belated recognition was simultaneously awarded to all those other givers without whom America's museums wouldn't exist.

Without collectors the art business wouldn't be a business. It's the collectors who support the painters, the sculptors, the dealers, the auction houses and--at least in America, where the tax laws encourage the migration of privately held objects into public institutions--the grandest art museums.

Lauder began his art career collecting freebie postcards of art deco hotels in Miami Beach. "I'd go trotting from hotel to hotel," he remembers, "taking them from the front desks."

Although Duncan Phillips ran his own museum, he gave time and art to others--especially the National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Lauder also has spread his benefactions. He has given hundreds of objects, and millions of dollars, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery and, especially, the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he's now chairman of the board.

"Many collectors collect to possess. I believe you have to collect to share. You lend it. You give your art. You give it. Somehow or other you make sure it gets back into the public's hands," he said.

When he received his medal, before a formal dinner at Duncan Phillips's Q Street NW house museum, the ghosts of other givers similarly inclined--the Mellons and the Wideners, the Kresses and the Walterses, Corcoran and Freer, Kreeger and Hirshhorn, and especially Phillips--were also in the room.

Phillips opened his museum in 1921. For 40 years thereafter members of his family paid almost all its bills. Not any more. Saturday's award ceremony, like many such ceremonies, was part of a fund-raising endeavor, in this case a gala Phillips weekend of cocktail receptions, black-tie dinners, art viewings and lectures, attended by 200, of whom the most generous paid $1,000 apiece.

The weekend celebrated not only Lauder's medal-getting but the publication of "The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making," an 820-page scholarly volume on his art, and "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," an exhibition of his holdings that opens to the public Saturday in his newly spruced-up galleries.

When Phillips opened his collection, he didn't charge admission. Now visitors will have to pay $7.50 each.

Phillips bought selectively. His taste was highly personal. Today his name evokes a certain sort of picture--subtle in its color, sort of blurry in its focus, reverie-inducing and scaled to the home. Lauder, 66--a tall, slim, apple-cheeked man who heads the Estee Lauder Companies Inc., and lends his things anonymously--is less known for his personal qualities of eye than for the large number of objects, and the large amounts of money, that he has given away.

After postcards got him started he began collecting posters. "I liked their lack of subtlety," he said. "A poster has to deliver its message in an instant. I started with World War II posters, and then moved to turn-of-the-century American literary posters (by Maxfield Parrish and William Glackens and artists like that). I built a huge collection. Eventually it got too big for me--there were posters in the closets, and under the bed--so I donated the whole thing to the Met. I've since doubled the Met's collection. My Russian constructivist and American modernist posters went to the Museum of Modern Art. I've increased that collection, too.

"I like to collect for the world."

These days he instead collects analytical cubist paintings, much tougher works of art. Knowledgeable people who have seen the Picassos and the Braques in his Fifth Avenue apartment agree that the collection is exceptionally fine.

"It was Russian constructivism that got me into cubism," said Lauder. "I bought my first cubist picture, a Picasso, about 20 years ago. Just about that time, Leigh Block in Chicago was beginning to break up his collection, so I bought a few things from him." Lauder has since acquired impressive objects from such collectors as the late Douglas Cooper--and New York's Guggenheim Museum.

The sometimes-controversial Whitney (Lauder calls it "the museum they love to hate") has been much enriched by his benefactions. Some 400 pieces there, among them some of its best-known objects--its toy circus by Alexander Calder, its 1959 "Black Painting" by Frank Stella, works of art by Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Cornell and Agnes Martin and, perhaps most famously, its 1958 "Three Flags" by Jasper Johns (which Lauder calls the Whitney's "icon of icons")--were acquired at his urging, or with his cash.

He also keeps art in his office at Estee Lauder. "From my desk," he said, "I can see two Oldenburgs, a Cornell, a Robert Rauschenberg, an early one, a Richard Serra work on paper, and a Kenneth Noland."

From now on the Duncan Phillips Medal will be bestowed annually on what Laughlin Phillips, a former director of the collection and its founder's son, calls "a distinguished public-spirited art collector."

The tradition of the fund-raising weekend--this was the fourth--will also be continued.

Yesterday its participants gathered again for a lecture by scholar Robert Rosenblum on Phillips's evangelizing vision.

"Bobby Rosenblum and I are old friends," said Lauder. "We're both graduates of P.S. 87 in New York."