Antibodies to histone deacetylases (HDACs) have been used to immuno-isolate deacetylase complexes from HeLa cell extracts. Complexes shown to contain HDAC1, HDAC3, HDAC6, and HDAC1+2 as their catalytic subunits have been used in an antibody-based assay that detects deacetylation of whole histones at defined lysines. The class II deacetylase HDAC6 was inactive in this assay, but the three class I enzymes deacetylated all histone lysines tested, although with varying efficiency. In comparison to HDAC1, HDAC3 preferentially deacetylated lysines 5 and 12 of H4 and lysine 5 of H2A. H4 tails in purified mononucleosomes were refractory to deacetylation by both HDAC1 and HDAC3, unless ATP was added to the reaction mix. Surprisingly, ATP also consistently enhanced cleavage of free, non-nucleosomal histones, but not small peptides, by both enzyme complexes. We found no evidence that ATP operates by phosphorylation of components of the HDAC complex, but have shown that HDACs 1, 2, and 3 all co-immunoprecipitate with the ATP-dependent chaperone protein Hsp70. Another common ATP-dependent chaperone, Hsp90, was absent from all HDAC complexes tested, whereas Hsp60 associated with HDAC1 only. We suggest that Hsp chaperone proteins enhance the deacetylase activity of HDAC complexes by ATP-dependent manipulation of protein substrates.