HAVE you heard the one about the six Belgian galleries that tried to sell contemporary art in Islington? As Belgian jokes go, it could turn out to be less funny than most.
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, pounds 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 pounds 45,000 and Alison Wilding's 46in-tall sculpture, Land Locked, galvanised steel and granite, is pounds 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 pounds 4,000. The Todd Gallery is selling Hanif's meditative surfaces of acrylic, enamel or marble dust for pounds 2,500- pounds 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 ( pounds 78,000), he is offering at the fair small drawings by Sicilia priced at pounds 2,000 and pounds 5,000- pounds 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. …