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Redolent of a lost age of discovery, vintage globes have a magnetic attraction, says Nicole Swengley.

October 18 2009
Nicole Swengley

Globes have always exerted a fascination for anyone interested in history, geography or cartography. Now they are finding a new fan base as design-savvy homeowners and interior decorators seek them out for their aesthetic appeal.

“Globes are perfect for hard-to-fill corners because there’s something magnetic about their domed shape, narrative qualities and rotational spin,” says David Linley, who sources old globes for his interior-decoration schemes and sells modern ones too. Martin Waller, international managing director of design company Andrew Martin International, agrees: “Every library we decorate has a vintage globe because their spherical shapes add interest to a room where everything else is at right angles. We like using globes from the 1920s to 1940s that let in a little nostalgia – the romance of exploration and history.”

Other industry experts express their appeal thus: “Globes are sculptural, visually pleasing and very tactile; they were made as much for show as practical use,” says Jon Baddeley, head of the collectors department at Bonhams.

“They’re real conversation pieces. People always want to spin them, and most old globes have a wonderful patina from years of interaction,” adds Saf Waterman, MD of globe specialist Trevor Philip & Sons. “Aesthetics are a big part of the attraction,” agrees Jonathan Potter, a London-based vintage map specialist who also sells antique globes. “Although prices have continued to escalate over the past few years, due to scarcity, you can still buy museum-quality artefacts without paying enormous sums.”

The first celestial globes date back to the first century AD. Terrestrial versions came later: the earliest surviving example – Martin Behaim’s globe in Nuremberg’s Germanisches Nationalmuseum – dates from 1492. Traditionally made of hand-applied paper on plaster, the rotating spheres of table (12in diameter) and floor-standing library terrestrial globes are fragile, so even 17th-century models are rare; mostly 18th- and 19th-century ones appear at auction.

Terrestrial pocket globes from the 18th and 19th centuries have survived in greater numbers partly because these cricket-ball-sized objects were generally kept in spherical, shagreen or leather cases whose lid interiors displayed their celestial equivalents. “The prime pocket globe period is between 1720 and 1815, and the best ones are by British makers, such as John Newton, Nathaniel Hill, George Adams (senior and junior), Dudley Adams, and Joseph Moxon,” says James Hyslop, Christie’s scientific instruments and globes specialist. “They would have been conversation pieces to bring out in the coffee houses when half the world was still unknown,” observes Baddeley.

This concept of slowly emerging knowledge is fascinating in an age when information is at our fingertips – and could account for the demand. “There’s something very pleasing about holding a globe in your hand and seeing new coastlines appear when you compare later versions with earlier ones,” says Hyslop. “We recently sold a Smith 3.75in globe from around 1850 for £2,750 – which was more than double the upper estimate – while a very similar Smith pocket globe sold for £400 in 1998.”

Stephen Bristow, a former lawyer, began collecting in the 1960s, paying just £15 for an 18th-century pocket globe from a Lewes antiques shop. “The earlier ones have considerable navigation detail,” he says. “I have a Moxon pocket globe showing the track of Sir Francis Drake’s voyages and prevailing trade winds.” He now owns an array of globes, all dating from the 18th century. “They are decorative while being scientific, and you can’t ignore their long-term investment value, which has been very good,” he says.

Saf Waterman’s London showroom has around 50 varieties in stock at any time, representing a spectrum of makers. Pocket globes range from £4,000 to £40,000, table globes from £5,000 to £30,000 and free-standing globes from £12,000 to £70,000. “Size and look are important for most buyers,” he says. “We’ve built collections of 20 to 30 pocket globes for clients to display in their homes.”

Traditionally, library globes were produced in pairs (celestial and terrestrial) and when sold together command higher prices than the sum of two individual globes because, as Hyslop says, “pairs work better decoratively”. The most sought-after library globes were made by the 17th-century Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu, with a large Blaeu pair fetching €793,850 at Christie’s Amsterdam in April 2008. Library globes by 17th-century Italian monk Vincenzo Coronelli are also prized and sell for similar sums. The Flemish 16th-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator is revered, as are 18th-century British makers James Ferguson and John Senex. Early-19th-century globes that reveal increasing knowledge of the earth also sell well.

Away from the salerooms, a pair of mid-19th-century library globes by John Cary was available for £75,000 earlier this year at London specialist The Map House, along with a pair of Kirkwood & Sons tabletop globes, dating from 1795, at £22,000. “We also have many lovely early-20th-century globes, some illuminated, others mechanical and often with wonderful art deco designs, ranging from just a few hundred pounds,” says director Philip Curtis. Historically interesting 20th-century examples can also be bought online. “I recently sold a 1920s globe showing central and south-eastern Europe as it was established following the break-up of the old Austro-Hungarian empire after the first world war, for £800,” says specialist antiques dealer Arthur Middleton.

Condition and provenance are key factors so it’s best to buy from dealers, salerooms or at antiques fairs such as Olympia. “Seek advice before you buy,” urges Waterman. “Avoid any with extensive repairs or in need of restoration,” says Middleton. “All floor-standing globe stands had a compass in the base which, if missing, is not a good buy.” And Baddeley warns: “Beware of ‘marriages’ between a globe and stand, and check the stand’s horizon rings for colour photocopies.”

Bristow admits to errors, but has enjoyed a good return. Most purchases are kept, however. “I love living with them,” he says. “They really bring history into the home.”

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