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Land Ho! Antique Maps

Used for Centuries to Navigate Routes Over Earth and Sea, Antique Maps Now Attract a host of Collectors--and a Few Thieves
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

The gentleman's pedigree was impeccable--but the antique maps stuffed under his sweater were stolen.

Fitzhugh Lee Opie, a great-great-grandnephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was nabbed by a detective at the Library of Congress as he left the building on March 7, 1992, with two mid-nineteenth-century Pacific Railroad Survey maps swiped from the library's map collection.

The stolen maps (and two old military books from the library later found in Opie's car) were valued at $1,200. Opie, once an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, and a well-known antiquarian dealer in that city's elegant Old Town section, had been stealing from the library for 10 years, according to prosecutors. He got six months in prison, plus placement of his name on a different kind of social registry--that of bandits, gentlemanly or otherwise, who have bestowed a backhanded tribute on the growing popularity and value of antique maps: they steal them.

Until the early 1970s, the world of antique map collecting was a fairly circumscribed one, an esoteric realm best known to historians, librarians and a small cadre of collectors--mostly men--who sometimes called their passion "cartomania." By the middle of the '70s, however, obsessive devotion to the work of cartographers began to spread. The intensifying interest was spurred by the

shrewd marketing of a few dealers who recognized that these beautifully engraved remnants of ages past and lost worlds would have enormous appeal for corporations with offices to adorn, investors with capital to spare, and collectors who realized that some astonishingly lovely antiques were available for modest sums.

"When I'm playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales." --Mark Twain (Life on the Mississippi, 1883)

Although map collecting still is considered largely the province of men, surely typical of the new generation of map collectors is a savvy young stockbroker for an investment bank in Hong Kong, Ailsa R. Cuthbert, 34, who already has accumulated "loads of maps," most of them dating from 1550 to 1750, after just five years in the hobby. Like many collectors, she began by reading books about maps, roamed through dealer galleries and shops, became friendly with other map collectors, and now concentrates on a few areas, typically regions that have a personal meaning for her. The majority of her maps are of Asia, where she has lived for 19 years, but she also has one of Edinburgh, where she was born, and a sea chart of the United Kingdom.

"I like the sense of discovery about them," says Cuthbert, "the transition of a place through time, and also the references to history, if they have a cartouche [title drawing] depicting costumes or other things from daily life at that time." Cuthbert is willing to spend up to $3,000 for a map--"more if I am feeling rich, or if it is an especially good piece," she says. She still is surprised that "you don't need to spend much more than $10,000 to get almost museum [-quality] stuff."

The vast majority of antique maps remain far more affordable, with many 300- and even 400-year-old items going for a few hundred dollars or less. That is lure enough for the 20,000 or so collectors who subscribe to Mercator's World, a bimonthly magazine devoted to the multifaceted aspects of map collecting, and the untold number of more casual collectors who poke around print and map-dealer shops.

"You don't have to be in Wall Street to buy maps; you could be a farmer," says Kenneth M. Newman, 71, owner of New York's The Old Print Shop Inc., which is celebrating its centennial this year. Although prices have "taken off in the past 15 to 20 years," he says, many high-quality maps from the eighteenth century (a prime period) still fall into the $800 to $10,000 range.

"They've always lagged tremendously [behind] the prices in [other] antiques, paintings, jewelry, boats, mink coats, cigars--anything you can think of," says W. Graham Arader III, 47, an exuberant, brash, extremely articulate fine arts entrepreneur whose aggressive marketing skills have made him one of today's top dealers in antique maps. At last January's Winter Antiques Show in New York's Seventh Regiment Armory (where he says 80 percent of his business has been generated over the years), Arader had approximately $1 million worth of maps for sale. While catalogues from Arader's seven galleries (in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas and California) feature maps that run as high as $350,000, he maintains a client list of some 4,000 customers that begins with those who have spent as little as $1,000 in his shops.

It is the escalating value of especially rare and desirable maps, however, that has turned the once-sleepy map market into a booming business that shows no sign of slowing down--and has transformed some previously respectable professionals into pilferers.

In its March 1997 issue, Money magazine featured a "Hot Stuff" story on map collecting, dubbing it "a new way to double your money." The magazine noted that a 15-inch-by-13-inch 1853 map of San Diego that sold for $60 in 1991 is worth more than twice that today, while the first map to call our continent "America," printed in Rome in 1507, has gone from $80,000 a decade ago to $135,000 now. Arader recalls that when he began selling maps in 1971, a classic 1635 map of America engraved and printed by the renowned seventeenth-century Dutch mapmaker Willem Blaeu sold for just $200 to $300. Now it fetches $12,000 to $13,000. The Old Print Shop's Newman muses: "As with everything else, [the price of maps] has moved along. I have to remind myself that the subway was a nickel in 1946."

Who are the people willing to pay Arader $15,000, say, for an 1810 map of the Southwest United States based on the explorations of a Lt. Zebulon Pike (of Pike's Peak fame), or $350,000 for four sixteenth-century Venetian wall maps of Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia? Newman's assurances notwithstanding, you can guess the answer: Wall Streeters. "What do they say, there are going to be 2,000 people that get $5 million bonuses or more on Wall Street?" Arader observed last December, just before the mammoth Christmas bonuses were doled out in the big brokerage houses. "Those are the people."

As a consequence, potential thefts such as Opie's have become a major concern for scholarly repositories previously unaccustomed to large-scale larceny. Once proud of the open access to their treasures, libraries and universities are having to rethink security procedures and institute tighter controls. Among the gentlemen crooks purloining maps have been Andrew P. Antippas, a professor of English at Tulane University, who pleaded guilty in 1978 to stealing five rare maps from Yale University, and Robert M. "Skeet" Willingham Jr., the head of special collections at the University of Georgia, who was convicted in 1988 of stealing rare maps, books and documents from his own library.

The most spectacular case thus far involved a map dealer, albeit one with a questionable background. On December 7, 1995, Jennifer Bryan, a curator for the Maryland Historical Society, was doing research inside the elegant, 117-year-old cast-iron and gold-leafed stacks of the George Peabody Library of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when she grew suspicious about the movements of a supposed fellow researcher nearby. He was Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr., a 47-year-old dealer in rare maps from Tamarac, Florida. Bryan alerted library security personnel, who confronted Bland, only to have him bolt from the building. Chased several blocks, he tossed a notebook into some bushes before he was cornered. Retrieving the notebook, the security officers found three maps worth about $2,000 inside, sliced from a valuable 1763 book, The General History of the Late War by John Entick. Bland had used a phony University of Florida ID card bearing the name James Perry to gain access to the Peabody stacks. After questioning by the security officials and Baltimore police, Bland offered to pay $700 to restore the damaged book, and the police advised the library to let him go.

In his haste to leave, however, Bland left behind his notebook. Looking it over, Peabody director of security Donald Pfouts found a chilling list of rare maps, along with the names of major libraries that had them. Hastily surveying their own collection, Peabody officials found that a dozen more eighteenth-century maps were missing from other books that Bland had requested on a previous visit. Hopkins alerted other university libraries. Distressing reports began coming in that "James Perry" had really made the rounds: in all, 18 institutions, including the universities of Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Brown, Delaware, Chicago, Northwestern, Washington State and Florida, had been visited by Bland. The sixteenth- to eighteenth-century books he had asked to see now were missing maps. They had become the stock of his increasingly active trade in antique maps.

Not surprisingly, FBI agents found that Bland--whose record included arrests on charges of possessing a stolen car and defrauding the federal government in an unemployment compensation scheme--had abruptly emptied and closed his small shop, Antique Maps and Collectibles, leaving a cryptic note for his landlord. It simply read: "See you later." The FBI, however, managed to track Bland down in Coral Springs, Florida, where he surrendered on Jan. 2, 1996.

After a month of bargaining, Bland told police where he had stashed his booty, a storage locker in Palm Beach Gardens that contained approximately 150 antique maps. The maps, together with 100 others that were recovered from Bland's clients throughout the United States, were worth an estimated half-million dollars. Plea bargains in federal and several state courts netted him an order to pay $70,000 in restitution for damages, along with prison terms on which he ultimately served 17 months. In the view of many of his victims, it was an appallingly light sentence. "He was violating the trust of practically every community in the country, committing crimes against our his-tory," Hopkins' Pfouts told writer Miles Harvey of Outside magazine.

The map thieves represent a glaring exception in a pursuit long dominated by knowledgeable, cultivated collectors and trustworthy, devoted dealers who trade in documents they revere more for their reflection of past glories than their potential for future profits.

"I think if you're going to buy a map as an investment, you ought to buy the S&P Index instead," W. Graham Arader says with a touch of sarcasm. "People who buy maps to make money lose; people who buy maps for passion make a fortune.

"If you let passion rule your decisions, you will always be followed by like-passioned people later, who will pay you much more for your maps. If you buy maps for investments, you will be followed by other, cheap people who are looking for maps as investments and will niggle you down. So you'll collect in a category that investors collect in, and you'll make all the classic mistakes that nonpassionate map collectors make. If you want to go into maps as an investment, don't. If you want to go into maps because you passionately love them, you'll definitely make money."

"Journey over all the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst." --Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1615)

The desire to make maps may be inherent in humankind. Clearly, people have always wanted to show how to get from one place to another on land and how to navigate the seas. They felt compelled to show potential travelers where rivers had to be crossed, where mountains posed barriers, what the place they lived in looked like. They were intensely interested, understandably, in the planet they inhabited. In essence, curiosity, commerce--and politics--compelled mapmakers and those who bought what they created. As the nations of Europe more meticulously surveyed their own realms and expanded their dominion over previously uncharted areas of the globe, they wanted maps of their new acquisitions and motherlands; their rivals also were interested in those maps, the better to determine the vulnerability of potential enemies in times of war.

While maps were meant to be used, they appear to have always intrigued collectors. "The interest in maps has been around for 500 years," says Arader. "There was a bishop in Spain who collected them in the fourteenth century!" The annals of mapmaking contain names only dimly remembered from high school or college history lessons, such as Ptolemy, the second-century Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer whose theories on the Earth's size, oceans and land masses dominated mapmaking for centuries; and Gerard Mercator, a renowned sixteenth-century Flemish mathematician, instrument maker, cartographer and engraver whose "projection" charts of the world established a foundation that eventually enabled seafarers to navigate more accurately.

There are names that either are synonymous with maps (William H. Rand and Andrew McNally) or are not readily associated with them. The ranks of American cartographers and map printers include at least one Founding Father (Benjamin Franklin); the father of another (Peter Jefferson, Thomas's dad); and the "father of American geography," Jedidiah Morse, a Connecticut publisher of geographic books whose son, Samuel, created Morse code--that shatterer of distance.

American mapmaking's roster includes Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the eighteenth-century surveyors whose boundary line defined the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland--and in time became the cultural demarcation between the North and South. Also on the honor roll is John Charles Fremont, called "The Pathfinder" for his mapping of the Midwest and Far West in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1856, he became the Republican Party's first nominee for president. The party's second nominee, in 1860, had been a part-time surveyor in Sangamon County, Illinois, in the mid-1830s and had far more modest mapmaking skills. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

Misconceptions in mapmaking have had a mighty long shelf life--and mapmakers whose identities largely are unknown today coined names and concepts that had immense, enduring impact. For example, around 150 A.D., Ptolemy published an eight-volume book, Geographia, that contained a world map, 26 regional maps and many smaller ones. No original copies of this book or his maps survive, but maps based on Ptolemy's theories were the first to come off the Renaissance's printing presses, and his calculations of the circumference of the world influenced mapmakers and geographic thought well into the 1700s--indeed, long after many of them knew better.

Ptolemy's key accomplishment was the introduction of a formal grid of longitudinal and latitudinal lines, devised on the basis of astronomical observations and mathematical calculations. Yet as Lloyd A. Brown observed in his classic 1949 book, The Story of Maps, Ptolemy's text "was both a keystone and a millstone." Initially a breakthrough, it ultimately assumed an unwarranted status as dogma, preventing newer, better maps from being printed. Nevertheless, as map historian Tony Campbell observed, "Ptolemy's shortcomings were to be a positive advantage."

"By favoring the shortest of various Greek estimates of the circumference of the earth and thus arriving at a much reduced value for a degree of longitude," Campbell wrote in his 1987 book, The Earliest Printed Maps, "Ptolemy seriously understated the distance between western Europe and the supposed position of China. Columbus, who owned [a copy of] the 1478 edition of Ptolemy's classic, believed, or pretended to believe, that only...about 2,400 nautical miles...separated Lisbon from Cathay. Had Columbus realized that the true figure was nearer 10,000 nautical miles, it is conceivablehe would never have set out on his first, momentous voyage."

Ironically, while one mapmaker's mistake helped send Columbus on his way to the New World, it was another mapmaker's misguided beliefs that denied Columbus an honor that his discoveries merited.

Martin Waldseemüller, born in Germany around 1473, adopted the nom de plume of Ilacomylus, a Greek/Latin form of his name, when he became a cosmographer (an expert on the known universe) under the patronage of the Duke of Lorraine. The Duke was believed to have had a copy of a 1502 book, Mundus Novus ("The New World"), which detailed the voyages of the Florentine seafarer Amerigo Vespucci, who had followed in the wake of Columbus. Waldseemüller and his text writer, the poet Matthias Ringman, were so impressed with what Vespucci had done that in 1507 they published a new geographic book, Cosmographiae Introductio, which ignored the accomplishments of Columbus and instead labeled the new continent "America," in honor of Vespucci. Within a few years, Waldseemüller had second thoughts about whether Vespucci deserved the honor--but by then too many copies of Cosmographiae Introductio had been published and the name "America" had stuck.

"So geographers, in Afric maps/With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And over unhabitable downs/Place elephants for want of towns."
--Jonathan Swift, 1733

Generally speaking, an "antique" map is one that is more than 100 years old. The earliest printed European maps were produced in the fifteenth century from wooden blocks on which the image was carved out in relief. By the early sixteenth century, the preferred printing method became engravings on copper plates, in which the image was cut in reverse. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, steel--a far more durable metal--replaced copper. Finer lines could be etched on steel and more maps could be printed from plates made of it. Most engraved maps after 1830 were etched on steel. Mapmakers also began using lithography, or drawings done directly on specially prepared stones, in the early 1800s. Modern machine lithographic printing technology was developed by the late nineteenth century. Maps could be made even more quickly and cheaply, but much of the earlier decorative quality now prized by many collectors disappeared in the process.

The period from the mid-1500s to the 1700s is the one that most interests deep-pocketed collectors, with the 1600s often called mapmaking's "Golden Age," an era when Dutch and Flemish cartographers turned out especially exquisite examples of the mapmaker's art.


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