Biggest art book will cost pounds 5,300

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The Independent Online
ART HISTORIANS are finalising the text of the largest art reference book in the world, a 34-volume dictionary featuring 6,700 authors from 120 countries, writes Marie Woolf.

The Macmillan Art Dictionary - conceived in 1980 by former prime minister Harold Macmillan - includes 41,000 articles on painting, architecture, photography, sculpture and archaeology.

A full set, which exceeds the Encyclopedia Britannica in scale, costs pounds 5,300, causing art historians to question whether it will sell its full print run of 11,000.

"It is not clear to me that the art trade will buy it," said David Ekserdjian, of Christies. "But I think it's an absolutely amazing thing to try and do. It has entries on 'the facade' and 'the bronze' together with Michelangelo. The notion of trying to put all art in one book is a really exciting one."

The book is not published until next year but 1,400 copies have already been ordered by libraries, museums and private art collectors.

Although it's taken 14 years and cost an estimated pounds 12m, the project has not been without obstacles. The corrected page proofs of the section on erotic art were stolen from author Peter Webb's car and he had to redo his work.

Several discoveries, including the name of the model for the Mona Lisa - since 1991 thought to be Lisa del Giocondo, wife of a Florentine silk merchant - and the finding of a new chamber in the Great Pyramid of Cheops, have been made since the work began, prompting rewrites.

Articles by Russian experts before the fall of Communism, were often censured by the Soviet authorities. Mikhail Sokolov, an expert on Russian art, was forced to remove information not yet published in the West by the Soviet copyright agency. It threatened that if he did not comply he "would never work again". He agreed but put back the deleted passages once theCommunists fell.

Other regimes were more helpful. In Cuba, the government cultural attache ordered museums to write sections on the island's art.

The book contains much unpublished material. The oldest carpet in the world - preserved in frost since the 6th century BC - is referred to in a section about Pazyryk, a Siberian archaeological site little known in the West.

The dictionary ranges from cave art to post-modernism and tries not to be Eurocentric. A spokesman for the book says it devotes fair space to the art of obscure ethnic groups, such as the Liao, a proto-Mongolian dynasty, and native peoples such as North American indians.

Almost half of the book was written, by experts in languages other than English and thus needed translating.

"We just went to the experts in their field," said Ian Jacobs, the director. "Most people thought it was a good thing to do. It is written to a high academic standard but in a way that is accessible."