Art | Past Masters

Vintage maps

From specialist British geological surveys to rare nation-defining moments, maps have long captured the collector’s imagination, says Katrina Burroughs.

December 18 2011
Katrina Burroughs

A voyage around the history of cartography takes in sea monsters and cannibals, new territories and imagined cities. It’s a journey that has delighted many collectors, as more continue to discover their own reasons to marvel at antique maps.

“Maps are a window into the history of the human imagination,” says inventor, entrepreneur and chairman of Walker Digital, Jay Walker. For more than 20 years, he has been amassing the greatest hits of cartography alongside his collections of rare books and artefacts at the Walker Library of the History of the Human Imagination in Connecticut. He prizes maps primarily for what they reveal about the minds of their makers.

“For the longest period of time, maps were highly imaginative as opposed to accurate,” Walker says. “The maps of ancient Jerusalem are all fabrication; celestial maps an attempt to impose the Greek myths onto the night sky. Maps of early explorers illustrated the way they saw and imagined the marvels and strangeness of the world – monsters and cannibals, unfamiliar peoples and cultures.”

Map printing began in the 15th century, flourished throughout the Age of Discovery, when European explorers charted the planet, and hit an aesthetic high in the works of the Dutch map-makers of the 17th century. Those most sought-after by collectors include the Ptolemaic maps, published from 1477, based on the shape of the world set out by Claudius Ptolemaeus in the second century. The only known example in private hands of the 1477 Ptolemy sold in 2006 for £2.1m at Sotheby’s – the most expensive atlas ever sold at auction. Later landmarks include Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a compilation of 53 maps first published in 1570, featuring polar bears on icebergs and fantastic sea creatures. John Speed’s Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World (1627) is the first atlas to include a map showing a celebrated cartographic quirk: California as an island.

Other collectable curiosities include the Leo Belgicus, a 1630 map that depicts the Low Countries in the shape of a lion, by Nicolaes Janszoon Visscher, one of which sold at the Sotheby’s auction of Frank Benevento’s collection in May 2010, for £32,450.

The epitome of refined, decorative 17th-century copperplate printing in Holland is Blaeu’s 1662 Atlas Major – a copy was top lot in the same Benevento sale, with the 11-volume publication fetching £289,250.

Christie’s books specialist Julian Wilson says that the topography of the map market is changing. “Mid-to low-end pieces are falling in value, but something rare, in superb condition, or of interesting provenance, will see a really good price. Growth areas include specialised material such as geological maps.”

Dr Christopher Toland, a professional geologist, is a collector of pre-1850 British geological maps. “Before 1850, most maps were hand-coloured and so there’s an aesthetic cut-off point,” he explains. “And the golden age of geological mapping in Britain came to an end in the 1840s and 1850s. The first half of the 19th century was a search for coal, tin, iron and raw materials. Every landowner wanted to know what was beneath their feet.” The name to acquire is William Smith, whose first geological map of England and Wales was issued in 1815. Fifteen years ago, Toland acquired a copy for around £10,000. “Now a good copy will cost you £60,000-£70,000.”

It’s not just Smith’s maps that are rising in value. Unexpectedly high prices logged in the past year include, in a Christie’s New York sale in December, Abel Buell’s 1784 map of the United States. Estimated at $500,000-$700,000, it sold for almost $2.1m. Why the feeding frenzy? It’s the holy grail for collectors of American cartography: the first map published in the United States.

Dealer Daniel Crouch, who opened a London gallery earlier this year, specialises in “the unique or extraordinarily rare”. He says now is an excellent time to start a map habit. “There’s been a good supply lately. And old books are about as conservative an asset as you can get – they very rarely go down. They’re a pretty safe haven.” Does he have any tips? “Maps of China are in the ascendancy of late. Prices have been going up rapidly for the past year or two, and they’ll keep pushing up.”

This is, of course, particularly true of scarce examples. The rarest map of all, with just one complete copy known, was bought for $10m in 2001. Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 World Map, known as “America’s birth certificate”, was the first document to name America, and remains the most expensive printed map ever sold. Jay Kislak, chairman of the Kislak Organisation, collects documents that tell the story of the early explorations of America; 3,500 of his acquisitions are exhibited at the Library of Congress. “We have autographed documents of Cortes and Pizarro, and early Columbus letters,” he says, “and we have maps.” In 2003, Kislak helped the Library of Congress acquire the 1507 Waldseemüller. Kislak bought its sister map, the 1516 Carta Marina – the first known printed nautical chart of the modern world – for $4m in 2003, though, he says, it has since been reappraised at $12.5m.

Part of the magic was the circumstance in which these treasures were found in 1901, in Wolfegg castle in southern Germany, the only surviving copies of each, bound together in one book, and in pristine condition. As Kislak says, “It was a story of discovery itself.”

See also

Collecting, Vintage