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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.

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