The Belgian people are avid and knowledgeable buyers of contemporary art. The British, seemingly oblivious to London's renown as the new contemporary art capital of the world, are not. Every year, private jets carrying 25-30 high-rolling Belgian collectors in search of cutting-edge art are eagerly awaited at fairs in Cologne, Basel and Paris. The jets have never ventured across the Channel: Britain's annual showcase of contemporary art - the London Contem-porary Art Fair, taking place from Wednesday at Islington's Business Design Centre - is notor-ious for having about as much cutting edge as a bent spoon, being shunned by almost all London's international contemporary galleries.
Hence this year's Belgian gambit. The snag has been that having cajoled six Belgian galleries into taking space in a promised "complementary context", the fair's director, Lucy Sicks, found herself more than usually bereft of hot international contemporary art: no Lisson Gallery, no Anthony D'Offay (an exhibitor last year), not even Waddington, which last year showed at fairs in Miami, Madrid and Maas-tricht, New York, Chicago, Basel, Paris and Cologne - and at the London British Art Fair.
Instead, when the fair, Art95, opens, you will find - hastily pitched beside the Belgians on the ground floor - four smaller London international galleries whose hot properties have helped create the buzz for Britain abroad. As recently as last month, they succumbed to cajolery, agreeing to take cut-price space as part of a two-year commitment to the fair.
The four are Jay Jopling (Damien Hirst's pickled creatures, Marc Quinn's head of frozen blood, last year's Turner-prize figures by Antony Gormley); Karsten Schubert (Rachel Whiteread's controversial Turner-prize concrete house, Anya Gallacio's chocolate - painted walls); Michael Hue-Williams (Andy Golds-worthy's sand and leaf sculptures); and the Todd Gallery (Marcia Hafif's monochromes).
But don't go expecting to see any pickled dead things, frozen blood, house-sized concrete lumps, chocolate walls or even creepy-crawlies made from chestnut leaves. It is a case of: "No cutting-edge art, please, we're British". Karsten Schubert, vocifero u s about the fair's past shortcomings even after entering the fold - "those dreadful galleries... as bad as the RA Summer Show... not an amusing way to spend an afternoon" - is offering small-scale work by Whiteread (Bed, acrylic and watercolour on paper, £2,500) and work by the less outrageous and more established of his artists. Bridget Riley's mosaic-like abstract, Cool Place, oil on linen, is for sale at £45,000 and Alison Wilding's 46in-tall sculpture, Land Locked, galvanised steel and granite, is£ 25,000.
Michael Hue-Williams is not selling sand or leaves but unique colour photographs of what Goldsworthy did with them: his Rowan Leaves Laid Around a Hole is £4,000. The Todd Gallery is selling Hanif's meditative surfaces of acrylic, enamel or marble dust for £2,500-£8,000. Jay Jopling intends to offer some Gormley - just what, we will have to wait and see.
Mr Hue-Williams explains his rationale: "Big works frighten people off. They don't even ask the price. They get much more excited by things they can handle. I am deliberately showing smaller works by artists who make bigger works. Some are as small as A4." Having sold the Spanish artist Jose Maria Sicilia's large nine-panel beeswax and encaustic Colmena (beehive) for $120,000 (£78,000), he is offering at the fair small drawings by Sicilia priced at £2,000 and £5,000-£6,000. They are what you might call British-scale.
One of the Belgian dealers, August Hoviele of Gallery S65 in Aalst, says: "Belgium may be small, but we have the best collectors. There are few middle-class homes here without original artworks on the wall. At the Basel and Cologne fairs, dealers really do ask when the planes full of Belgians are going to arrive."
Very few Belgian collectors are speculators, Mr Hoviele explains. Even the young buy for the home. "Many of them are hard-working people making good money in the textile factories of Flanders," he says. "There are fewer collectors in the French-speaking
Belgian collectors buy internationally and are willing to risk money on young artists. It is a totally different situation from Britain, says Hoviele. "In your country the very wealthy are living in the past, still buying high-value French Impressionists, afraid to take risks. I suppose it's because we have a prosperous middle class in Belgium. In Britain you seem to have just higher class and lower class".
Mr Hoviele is not exhibiting the British artists he represents - David Tremlett and Allan Charlton, who paint minimalist abstracts. He has been encouraged by Art95 to add international appeal by showing for the first time in Britain his five young Americans.
Carol Szymanski sculpts forms derived from sounds: her copper horn is for sale at $4,000 (£2,600). John Zinsser does depth-of-field abstracts at $2,000-$4,000 (£1,300-£2,600). There are works by Phil Sims at $4,000-$6,000 (£2,600-£3,900) and by Dan Walshat $2,000 (£1,300). Big, tightly-controlled monochromes by the established Joseph Marioni are for sale at $16,000 (£10,300). Mr Hoviele says: "They are mostly cheap: that is my policy."
Going American could be a smart move. Since the IRA armistice, American tourists have packed London: hotels and restaurants have found it hard to cope. Dealers at the fair are waiting to see how many art collectors are among them.
Gill Hedley, director of the Contemporary Art Society and a member of the fair committee, negotiated the entry of the four British cutting-edge galleries. "Because of the past history of the London Contemporary Art Fair," she says, "those British collectors who are sophisticated and informed don't want to buy in London. Also, London galleries know there are markets in Europe and the United States, so that is where they tend to concentrate."
Hedley believes there has been no really exciting collecting fashion in this country since the turn of the century, when businessmen and industrialists bought Pre-Raphaelites and great Victorian narrative paintings, virtually creating a taste. "But in t h is of all years," she says, "when British contemporary art is doing so extraordinarily well, both critically and commercially, it is vital to have at the fair those galleries that have taken risks. We want people to turn to Art95 to see what is happening ".
Though he's exhibiting, Karsten Schubert is not convinced: "At the fair you pay £190 per square metre but still don't get the audience. It's ludicrous. It will be better than last year, but I wish more high-profile people had been attracted. Where is th e Victoria Miro Gallery, Anthony Reynolds, Interim Art, the Cabinet, Laure Genillard, Hales? There really is potential for an international market in London."
Only about 10 per cent of visitors to the fair - 24,000 last year - come from abroad. Ms Sicks, the director, is not sold on the idea of a "purist cutting-edge fair". It would alienate the public, she says: "Of course I'd like to have the Lisson, D'Offa y and Waddington, but all international fairs offer a wider range than that. You have to go for the bigger picture."
In November, when the biggest contemporary art fair in Cologne allocated the now-famous Hall 5 to 32 buzzy young international galleries (who in previous years had protested outside under the name "Unfair"), Lisson and D'Offay stunned other dealers by joining forces with them. Perhaps that was what was meant to happen on the ground floor of Art95.
One young British artist whose work is being shown at the fair by a Belgian dealer, in coals-to-Newcastle style, is Adrian Wiszniewski - one of the Glasgow painters who made a reputation in the Eighties. His large canvas The Making of Synoptics, showing
women making a neon wall sculpture, has been priced at £16,000 by Micheline Lessafre, a former museum art historian who runs Gallery F17 in Ghent. She prices Wiszniewski's drawings, reflecting on Matisse and Picasso, at £600-£1,000.
Gallery F17 was founded five years ago by a typical Belgian art-collecting couple, Etienne and Roos Tallieu. Now aged 45, they made their money in advertising. "Once the Belgians have their house and car," Ms Lessafre explains, "they want to buy art."
Lessafre had shown Wiszniewski twice at F17 by the time he left the London gallery of Nigel Greenwood, shortly before it closed in 1991. She represents another former Greenwood artist, Christopher Le Brun, who is also represented by Marlborough Fine Art.At the fair, Marlborough and their graphics arm will be exhibiting more established artists such as Paula Rego and Frank Auerbach.
"When I took on Le Brun and Wiszniewski," says Lessafre, "nobody had heard of them. All British artists need a gallery on the Continent. They feel lost on that island."
Wiszniewski himself values the Continental connection. "The fact is, you can't just turn up at the Basel fair every year and expect to understand how it works. You do need to be represented. I can now show in Ghent, then drive to Cologne for lunch, or even Paris."
The fair is Ms Lessafre's opportunity to give a first showing in Britain of an established Belgian artist, Jacques Charlier. Virtually unknown here, he is recognised in Belgium as the art-historical successor to the quirky tradition of Ensor, Rops and M a gritte.
Contemporary art seems cheaper on the Continent - and it seems to shift quicker, too. What did Ms Lessafre expect from her first encounter with the British contemporary art market? "We're curious to meet people," she says. "We show British artists in Belgium but don't seem to know many collectors in Britain. It is an experience we want to go through."
Meanwhile, like adherents of some tropical cargo cult, both Belgian and British gallery owners on the ground floor of Art95 will be watching the skies for those planeloads of Belgians. They have bigger ideas and fatter wallets than the Brits.
Art95, The London Contemporary Art Fair, is at the Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 0QH (071-359 3535). from 18-22 January (11am-8pm Wed-Fri, 11am-6pm Saturday, and 11am-5pm Sunday). Entry £4.50.Reuse content