ONLY two years ago art dealers from the West were rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of selling to Hong Kong. The early 1990s were boom time locally, and the Western art market was in the depths of a deep recession. So the London, New York and Paris galleries rolled in with exhibitions full of Miros, Hockneys and Chagalls, and we looked set for a shopping spree. But this spring, at least one London dealer is prepared to admit the anticipated bonanza never really happened and the Hong Kong market remains a tough nut to crack for Western art. There has been a renaissance of interest in art, but local buyers are looking mainly to the East. 'The Western arts boom never began,' says Anthony Brown of Connaught Brown, which is currently holding its third show of European masters at Schoeni Gallery in Central. 'There has been a Chinese painting boom, but never a Western one.' Brown's gallery has been slowly building up what he describes as 'an interest' in Western art over the past three years. The policy has been big-league names, but minor-league pieces, something which Brown says is sensible for the local market. There are small bronze pieces by Henry Moore, an unsigned lithograph by Marc Chagall and sketches by Matisse and Picasso, and works by minor early 20th century artists such as Albert Andre. Nothing, he says, is too expensive but everything is quality. The reality is, he says, despite the hype there was never a market for top pieces here. 'Nobody is going to bring out great European art by Picasso and Matisse; there are no collectors here. And if there are, they buy in Europe. Or there are so few of them there is no point in holding an exhibition. You might as well call them all on the phone.' Perhaps the clearest evidence of a reappraisal of the Hong Kong market is the way the composition of the annual art fair, Art Asia, has changed since its inception in 1992. At the peak of 1993 there were more than 100 dealers, including 30 from Paris alone, selling million-dollar Modiglianis. Few came back for 1994, when the fair had as many antiques stalls as fine art stalls. This year, predicts Charlotte Shalgosky, the Art Asia director of operations, Asia, there will be many more antique dealers from as far afield as South Africa. She agrees that any illusions Western fine art dealers may have had about quick million-dollar sales to nouveau riche Hong Kongers, have been punctured for ever. 'This is not Europe or New York,' she points out. 'It would be very foolish for any dealer to perceive the market here as pavements lined with gold.' Although media coverage has concentrated on Art Asia's success in attracting big international dealers, she says the show has always been about supporting local talent. 'This is a showcase for local art, not just the big boys coming in from New York,' says Shalgosky. 'The local art market can benefit from introduction to the international market.' Art Asia in 1995 will also guarantee the standards of all the works on sale - something which caused some controversy last year. What organisers describe as a 'democratic vetting committee' to keep out 'anything below world class art standards'. Brown feels the new direction of Art Asia is a reflection of the local market. Dealers who returned after 1993, only brought pieces that would sell. 'If people are going to buy junk, then they will sell junk, and do reasonably well. Lots of dealers don't sell top stuff in Europe. If people here want it, they deal in lesser things, but it isn't necessarily rubbish.' The other problem - setting prices for a market that doesn't have much to compare with - he says is also a response to local buyers. There are plenty of stories of Western dealers putting up prices for the local market partly because they think local buyers don't really know what things are worth, but also, says Brown, because of Hong Kong people's reputation for haggling. 'But our prices are the same as in London,' he insists, brandishing a catalogue with the prices marked in sterling and Hong Kong dollars. 'I don't believe in marking up. If anything, for Hong Kong we mark them down.' But if the territory no longer attracts the best to its only international art fair, Art Asia, it is not alone, Brown says. The annual London fair is the same. 'It isn't so different from the annual London contemporary arts fair every January - some reasonably interesting painting. London gets what it deserves, so I'm not downgrading Hong Kong,' he says. 'Cities get what they want. Basel and Chicago have great fairs because they have great collectors who want to show off.'