The heroic enterprise was first dreamt up in 1980 by the late Harold Macmillan, former prime minister and life president of publishing house Macmillan. Jealous of the prospects of the new Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which was first published that year, "Supermac" pledged that his company would produce an equivalent for visual art. Dubbed the company's flagship for the 21st century by its editor, Jane Shoaf Turner, it will be launched on 23 October.
And what a mighty machine it is. Some 6,700 leading scholars have contributed a total of 41,000 entries, which make up 26 million words and 34 volumes. That is 14 volumes more than the Grove Dictionary, and two more than the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
A small forest has been felled to provide the 700 tons of paper required for the print run of 6,000 sets, which will retail at pounds 5,700 each.
The present Lord Stockton, Harold Macmillan's son and the company's present life president, insists that "we have stolen the lead on all our competitors" and that the quantity of pre-publication orders prove the dictionary is "already a great commercial success".
Logically speaking, the next step for Macmillan should be to enlist the aid of the latest technology, by installing their magnum opus on the Internet and charging subscribers to use it. The Encyclopaedia Britannica's publishers charge $150 a year for such an on-line service, with a $25 registration fee on top.
The problem is that, while Macmillan was beavering away, Mr Gates, the boss of the software giant Microsoft, was busy approaching museums around the world, signing up exclusive deals with them regarding reproduction rights to images. "There are huge copyright problems to getting the electronic reproduction rights," Mrs Turner says. For Macmillan to take the dictionary on line would be "another investment of pounds 1m."
Many of the works signed up by Microsoft figure among the dictionary's 15,000 illustrations, and Macmillan is thus barred from transmitting them down the "electronic superhighway". Nor would the publisher be able to place the dictionary on CD-Rom, as none of the discs on the market is big enough to contain all the material involved.
One way forward would be for Microsoft and Macmillan to join forces. But Mr Gates's taste, as manifest in Encarta, his multi-media encyclopaedia, is for quick fixes and special effects rather than quantities of information. Encarta's users are entertained by video and sound clips, with texts that rarely exceed 500 words, while the Macmillan Dictionary's entry for Michelangelo, for example, runs to 16,000 words.
Lord Stockton acknowledges that the question of copyright is "a vexed area in the whole industry". But he insists his images, on good old-fashioned paper, are far superior to those of Mr Gates, which have poor definiation and are hence "fuzzy".
"We have had informal discussions with Microsoft, but there is nothing to report," Mrs Turner says. Mr Gates clearly has the upper hand.
Apart from the 331 copyright libraries around the world (the ones that are supposed to buy every book), and the universities that can afford the outlay, prospects for the dictionary are therefore limited.
At worst, the dictionary could become a collector's rarity, traded on the art market like the Shakespeare First Folio. If that were to happpen, it would be dealers and collectors who reaped the profits.
This would be sad, as the dictionary is a remarkable achievement in this age of declining educational standards.
"Because Macmillan is still privately owned as a company, it has a commitment to long-term projects which wouldn't be possible in a publicly-owned company," Mrs Turner says. "We are committed to high-standard reference books which will be the authority in their field." And she adds: "Groves is established as this academic pillar of excellence in musical history."
As Macmillan's is the first major art dictionary to combine many artistic disciplines, from architecture to restoration, it provides rich opportunities for cross-referencing, or "going on odysseys" as Mrs Turner puts it.
Fascinating facts include the revelation that Damien Hirst was not the first artist to use dead animals. Indeed, he was preceded by two decades by the little-known Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, who in 1975 staged a performance using a bull and 11 sheep. One of the great masters of Native American art was a man called Buffalo Meat.
There are also entries on Joseph Goebbels and the "degenerate art" that he and his Nazi fellows condemned.
That passable amateur artist Adolf Hitler gets nine references in the index, although Mrs Turner balked at giving him an entry proper. "Had he not failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907," she says with some understatement, "history might have turned out very differently."
Prince Charles is there, too, repeating his quote about the "monstrous carbuncle", while Comrade Lenin's distinct lack of interest in art is offered as a clue to the Soviet visual-art policy that followed the Russian Revolution.
Gems include a solemn essay on the art of women's body-decoration among the Nuba peoples of the Sudan, and a tribute to the two prisoners in Wolverhampton jail who successfully conned the art market by faking Bernard Leach pots.
The product also offers its fair share of controversy, as with the entries on the ancient Helladic civilisation. "The new school of thought is that the Helladic peoples immigrated to Greece from what is now Turkey," explains Mrs Turner. "That's anathema to Greek scholars."Reuse content