Art Beat

Thomas Heneage Art Books, in St. James's, London, is roughly equidistant from the two main auction houses—a nice enough geographical correlative for its position in the Western art world today. If you're a collector, a dealer, a student, or a novice buyer, the first thing you need before you bid for or write about art is information. And specialist art information in the form of books is precisely what Heneage's deals in. When there are important London art sales, it fills its windows with new and rare books relating to the objects or paintings on offer. It takes tons of books to places where connoisseurs gather, like the European art fairs. And it sends its clientele not only a thrice-yearly Art Book Survey covering new books from 3,000 publishers worldwide, but also regular catalogs offering books and monographs in a range of languages. And if you think that you might be better off doing your research in a museum or a university library, the chances are that their books came from Heneage's in the first place.

On a regular day at Heneage's, you may see any or all of the following: a New York couturier delving into a Turkish book on Islamic textiles; a British art dealer checking out if there's "anything essential" in a private library Heneage has just bought; or a Japanese couple being advised on the research books they'll need if they're to enter the market as collectors. If they are thinking of collecting medieval manuscripts or Renaissance cameos, it's likely Heneage himself will be doing the advising. For it was from his own collection of important rare books about small objects that the business first sprang. "Dealers and auction-house directors were always asking me if they could buy or borrow something I'd found," he says. "Of course I'd say no." Eventually he did let Christie's sell a Victorian Wedgwood catalog he'd bought in a job lot and didn't need: It made $200—an astonishing amount in the early '70s. Heneage bought more books on ceramics, sold them for more than 10 times what he'd paid, and thereby gave birth to a business, finally opening the St. James's shop in 1985.

On the Saturday I visit the shop, it's closed to outside trade, so I'm free to browse the shelves while the founder answers my questions. What, I ask, is the most valuable work in the shop, and he shows me Willem van Bode's 13-volume survey of Tuscan Renaissance sculpture: "There are fewer than twenty known copies." Cost: $40,000. After an hour or so, he looks at his watch. He's off to the European Art Fair at Basel with five tons of art books. There's time for one more question. "Do you ever find books that you want yourself?" I ask."Oh no," he answers cheerfully, making for the door, "I never compete with my customers."

Thomas Heneage Art Books, 42 Duke Street, St. James's, London; 44-171-930-9223; fax 44-171-839-9223.