Collecting Guide Maps

Collecting Guide: Maps

10 tips on collecting maps — from an expert who admits to keeping moon maps under his bed (aka Julian Wilson, a specialist in books, maps and manuscripts)

1. Use maps to gain an insight into worlds of the past

The legendary island of Brasil would appear before unsuspecting sailors for a single day once every seven years to lure them to their deaths. Cartographers up to the 17th century pinpointed this mysterious landmass in the Atlantic — sometimes off the Irish coast — although I have seen it located as far south as the Azores. There is something very intriguing about visual anomalies that don’t exist today.

Another classic example is the state of California: it was shown correctly on most maps up to the mid 17th century, but then word reached Europe that someone had successfully circumnavigated California. Map makers scrambled to show California as an island and this notion, though soon disproved, persisted on maps for over than 100 years.

Coronelli, Vincenzo (1650-1718). Atlante Veneto: Isolario descrittione geografico-historia. Venice: 1696-97. This lot and those below were offered in our sale, Valuable Books and Manuscripts Including Cartography on 15 July 2015 at Christie’s in London

Maps are a visual representation of developments in geographical knowledge. I was just sent a map on which only the Western portion of Australia is shown, while the undiscovered Eastern portion is left blank (see above). For an Australian studying European maps it’s incredibly interesting: the coastlines of Australia seem to emerge from nowhere with every improvement in cartographic knowledge.

Border changes can also pique the curiosity of collectors. The Republic of Texas existed as an independent country for 10 years, 1836-1846, but the British government never officially recognized it, due to its friendly relations with Mexico. Consequently, London map publishers did not depict Texas as a separate entity, often showing it as part of Mexico. Some Texans — generally proud of their Lone Star state — will pay a premium to have maps showing their state as an independent country.


2. Beauty and quirk: look out for cartographic charm

Greenough, George Bellas (1778-1855). A Physical and Geological Map of England & Wales (on the basis of the original map of Wm. Smith 1815) revised and improved. London: The Geological Society, July but 1 August 1865. Sold for £8,125

My own interest in maps started from my study of the history of geology. The very important, pioneering geological maps are large, imposing and incredibly decorative. Early 15th century printed maps based on the Greek cartographer Ptolemy have a stripped-down beauty. Some of these maps orient Scotland at a 90-degree angle from our current understanding of its placement; there’s a certain quirkiness to them that holds appeal.

Portolan atlases and charts, by which medieval and Renaissance sea captains would have navigated, can look very unusual to the modern eye. Since they are primarily interested in the depiction of coastlines, the early ones don’t show any landforms or give any sense of depth. Crisscrossed by rhumb lines (lines which cross meridians of longitude at the same angle), embellished with compass roses and coast names, written at right angles to the coastline, they are both beautiful and accurate. The early ones have a sparse beauty while the later renditions are highly decorated — almost in the fashion of illuminated manuscripts. The landscapes are sometimes filled with mythical beasts, fanciful hills or flags for the countries they represent.


3. Some maps are more important than others

Ortelius, Abraham (1527-1598). Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Antwerp: Gielis Coppens van Diest, 1571. Bound with: Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. Antwerp: Gielis Coppens van Diest, 1573. Sold for £22,500

Cartographers are attempting the near-impossible: rendering a three-dimensional sphere on a flat surface. The best map publishers had to be an extraordinary composite of different qualities, with a mathematician’s mind, an artist’s hand and the shrewd eye of a businessman. There are two high points in the Golden Age of cartography: the first was the publication of what we would call the modern atlas, by Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598). It has several editions (see above), as it was constantly in production from 1570 to 1620.

Blaeu, Willem (1571-1638) and Johannes Blaeu (1596-1673). Novus Atlas, Das ist, Welt-beschreibung, Mit schönen newen außführlichen Land-Taffeln in Kupffer gestochen…Vierter Theil. Volume IV. Britain. Amsterdam: Johannes Blaeu, 1648. Sold for £10,000

The second high point came from the father and son pair Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) and Johannes Blaeu (1596-1673). Official cartographers to the Dutch East India Company, they had access to the latest charts and produced magnificent maps and atlases, culminating in the Atlas Maior (published 1662-1672) — a splendid 11-volume atlas of the world. If one of those came up for auction today you would be looking at £120,000-180,000.

Drake, Sir Francis (c.1540-1596) — [VAN SYPE, Nicola (fl. c. 1580).] La heroike interprinse faict par le Signeur Draeck d’avoir cirquit toute la terre. [?Antwerp: c.1590]. Sold for £60,000

The first map that depicts a territory will be deemed to be more important than later maps. For instance, the map that shows California in our upcoming sale is a contemporary depiction of Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe (see above). It appears to name the place where Drake apparently made landfall on the west coast of America, ‘Quivira’, near modern-day San Francisco and is one of the earliest maps to name California.


4. The rarer the map, the more desirable

Buell, Abel (1742-1822). A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America Layd Down from the Latest Observations and Best Authorities Agreeable to the Peace of 1783. Humbly Inscribed to his Excellency the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut By their Most Obedient and Very Humble Servant Abel Buell. New Haven: Abel Buell, 1784. Sold for $2,098,500

The Drake map, probably printed in 1590, is an extraordinarily rare reproduction of the now-lost great manuscript map that once hung in the palace of Whitehall. It is one of only two known copies — the other one is held in the New York Public Library collection. By their nature as manuscript maps, Portolan maps are unique.

In terms of printed maps, Abel Buell’s A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America (New Haven, CT: 1784, see above) generated significant interest when it came up for sale at Christie’s New York in 2010. Not only was it the first map to have been printed in the newly independent United States, it was a genuine rarity being one of only eight known copies. Selling for $2,098,500, it set a new world record for a single printed map.


5. A stamp of approval from a past owner is appealing

Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition, 1858-1864 — Francis Skead (1823-1891). Sold for £22,500

Monarchs and politicians from the Renaissance period had a great thirst for knowledge of the world; with discoveries having been made in the New World and Far East, they wanted to discover new land that could offer possibilities for trade. The British Library Collection holds the largest atlas ever published — the Klencke Atlas — which was made specifically for Charles II.

Collectors of maps love to know that a map they own comes from a good collection. If I could prove, for instance, that the Francis Drake map in our upcoming sale had been at the court of Elizabeth I, it would have a dramatically higher estimate. On 15 July we will be auctioning a whole suite of atlases from the royal house of Wettin of Saxony. Although the family weren’t well-known for their map collection, their status gives the atlases more gravitas since they are from a good library.

Then there are maps owned by famous explorers: we sold a manuscript map of Livingston’s Zambezi exploration (see above). Drawn on the expedition to record the journey and the mouths of the river, it provides a direct connection between primary surveillance and the opening up of the interior of Africa.


6. If it looks too good to be true, sometimes it is

Bode, Johann Elert (1747-1826). Uranographia, sive astrorum descriptio. Berlin: by the author, 1801. Sold for £12,000

Collectors who are new to the field should be aware that they will often find maps that look fantastic — but only due to the addition of modern hand-colouring. This will have a knock-on effect on value. Our upcoming sale includes a celestial atlas with modern hand-colouring which is estimated at £8,000-12,000 (see above). If it had been contemporary colour (contemporary in our world always means at the time of publication) you’d be looking at £30,000-50,000.


7. Starting a collection doesn’t have to be expensive

If you think maps are beyond your budget, think again. There are many types of maps out there, and not all of them cost the earth. You can probably pick up a 17th century county map of England done by John Speed for £200-300. I myself am fond of geological maps of the dark side of the moon in psychedelic colour, published by NASA in the 1960s and 1970s. I bought one for £30 and they are now trading on eBay for £300. Map collecting only becomes expensive when you are seeking the black tulips of cartography.


8. Take care of your collection

Collectors vary in how they keep maps — some people like to frame them and keep them on their walls, others place them into chests of drawers. My own collection is hidden in an art folder underneath my bed. If you collect atlases, they can sit on a bookshelf. Like every paper collectible, maps are best stored at constant and cool temperatures.


9. Find alternative and unexpected areas

CORONELLI, Vincenzo (1650-1718). Atlante Veneto: Isolario descrittione geografico-historia. Venice: 1696-97

People are always finding new and wonderful maps to collect. One area that collectors are looking into at the moment is maps of the Far East — in particular the Singapore Straits. Finding printed maps that date to the 18th century of these areas is extremely difficult.

Some collectors are straying from traditional ideas of what constitutes a collectable map. In recent years the Harry Beck London Underground map executed in the 1930s has attracted a lot of attention. And what about maps of the Human Genome? Perhaps we’ll see maps of global warming and of ozone layers come into play. There is a whole host of areas yet to be explored.


10. Read up and talk to people

There’s no substitute for a great library. Maps have so many editions, issues and can be found in so many various states that a good reference library is a must to help navigate your way through a potential minefield. I would also recommend attending the previews of Christie’s Books sales because they always have a cartographic component.

Only by physically handling maps will you gain an understanding of the papers involved, the type of bindings for atlases and begin to differentiate between contemporary and modern colouring. Visit collections at institutions such as the British Library or the Library of Congress, the maps fairs and go to map dealers’ shops.

Maps are one of the few collecting areas where institutions, auctioneers, academics and dealers all work very closely together; it is a warm and welcoming family! We all go to the same events like the London Map Fair at the Royal Geographical Society, the yearly Miami International Map Fair which takes place in the first weekend in February, and the biennial International Conference for the History of Cartography. If you’re starting out, get involved.


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