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

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Late-nineteenth-century maps also now fall into the more-than-100-years-old "antique" category--and are expected to begin rising in value. There even are devotees of those old oil company road maps that were given away at gas stations and stuffed into glove compartments between the 1920s and 1970s. Road Map Collectors of America, established only a few years ago, now has more than 300 members.

What entices most collectors, however, are not maps that were mass-produced to guide our way across the U.S.A., but those that were engraved by hand to record the centuries-long advance of human knowledge about the planet on which we live, the oceans we sail, the celestial bodies that have guided seafarers and mapmakers alike, and the towns and cities we built.

Collectors accumulate a familiarity with more than just geography. They pick up history; they develop an eye for engraving skills, colors and condition; they learn the names of cartographers, engravers and printers. They particularly prize maps that feature the misconceptions, mistakes and wild imaginings of the past: California depicted as an island (a belief that persisted for more than 100 years); sea monsters spouting above the waves and strange beasts lumbering over uncharted terrain; bizarre races as weird as any imagined aliens--people born with their heads set into their chests or ears large enough to sleep in.

As historian Stephen E. Ambrose has noted, even as brilliant a polymath as Thomas Jefferson, who in his day owned the world's largest library on cartography, geography and the natural history "of that awesome terra incognita west of the Mississippi," was not immune to beliefs now deemed absurd. He thought that prehistoric creatures such as the giant ground sloth still lived along the upper Missouri River; that a mile-long mountain of pure salt existed on the Great Plains; that the Missouri, the Columbia, the Colorado and the Rio Grande rivers all emanated from a single source; and that there likely was an all-water route, linked by a low portage across the western mountains, that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In part it was to confirm or debunk these and other beliefs that Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark--two of this country's greatest early cartographers--on their epic expedition in 1803.

"We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this country. Those who come after us will fill up the canvas we begin," Jefferson wrote. Filling in that canvas took a long, long time. As late as 1867, a comprehensive summary of the geographical knowledge of the American West contains no reference to the Grand Canyon.

Despite the slow progress of geographic knowledge, mapmakers were never idle. There is a staggering variety of cartographic canvases available to collectors, who can choose from maps of the world, as well as globes, atlases, celestial and sea charts, town and city plans, miniature maps, even some extremely rare playing cards from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that feature maps of the counties of England and Wales--which, conveniently, number precisely 52.

The wisest advice to would-be collectors is to specialize in a particular subject, a certain region or a specific period, perhaps, or individual printers. Concentrating on one specialty will enable you to avoid being overwhelmed and allow you to gain sufficient knowledge about it to be able to recognize quality items when you see them and accurately judge whether the price tags properly reflect their value. "I recommend strongly that collectors focus," says Arader. "People who go scattering all over the place generally have scattering, silly kinds of collections."

In addition, only trade with reputable dealers, the kind who have been in business for a while and are known to their peers. The number of dealers in antique maps has remained surprisingly small. It still is a limited fraternity, an estimated 400 or 500 strong. Dozens list their wares on the Internet. Most are devoted to the hobby, but a few are in it for a quick buck. The good ones know who is reliable--and who is not. "It's a highly specialized field," says The Old Print Shop's Newman, who has been in the business since 1949.

Adds Arader: "The average collector should join a map-collecting society first. Whatever his budget for maps is going to be, he should spend it on reference books the first year and read."

Such advice is well-founded. The amount of arcane information about maps can be as daunting as their variety. The dating of specific maps, for example, provides an indication of the field's variability. As experts Carl Moreland and David Bannister explain in their book Antique Maps, one of the guides published by Christie's auction house, simply dating fifteenth-, sixteenth- or seventeenth-century maps is fraught with complications about which even specialists often differ. Frequently, a map may be listed with two dates--one in brackets to indicate when it first was issued; another date without brackets to indicate when that specific example of the map was printed.

In the maps trade, any print made from a particular woodblock or metal plate is deemed an "original," even if, as in the case of metal plates, a particular plate was used for more than a century (which was common); changes were made in it; and it passed from one printing house to another over the decades. Watermarks on the paper can be helpful in dating--but often mapmaking houses laid in huge stocks of paper and kept producing maps from particular batches for up to 40 or 50 years at a stretch. "Essentially, the purchaser has to rely on his own knowledge and the reputation of the seller," Moreland and Bannister advise. "If the impression is strong and clear, the map could be from an early edition; a weak impression probably would indicate the opposite."

Arader's major sources for antique maps are collectors, other dealers and museums that sell duplicates from their collections. When it comes to authentication, Arader says he checks "the paper, the ink, the watercolor, the plate mark, the folds in the paper, the oxidation of all of those previously mentioned things--you know, there are about 30 things you look at to determine whether a map's original. Learn as much about the field as you can before you spend your hard-earned money," he advises. "There's a lot of free information out there. Dealers will talk for days. So get [one] to start talking to you."

Antique maps come in a wide variety of sizes. Some could fill half a wall; others--exquisite sixteenth- and seventeenth-century miniatures that are just 3 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches--could fit into a wallet, albeit one that has been slimmed considerably to pay for them.

The basic sizes have specific names. Folio maps are those printed on a full sheet of paper measuring about 25 inches by 20 inches. Quarto maps are printed on one quarter of a sheet that generally measures 13 inches by 10 inches. Octavo maps are printed on one eighth of a sheet of paper measuring about 7 inches by 5 inches.

All of the early woodblock maps were printed in black and white, but mapmakers quickly learned that color sells. Soon they were advertising maps for sale as "colored or plain." Printed from engraved plates, the colored maps were hand-tinted before they were issued. Because it was tedious and costly to hand-color a lot of maps at a time, however, many of these maps were sold uncolored. The color schemes remained the same for centuries: estates, woods and forests were in green; hills were colored brown or black; rivers, lakes and seas were indigo.

The colorists had more leeway for creativity with the cartouches--the extravagant, complicated title drawings on many antique maps that give the name of the subject shown, the cartographer's name, sometimes a dedication, and perhaps an indication of scale. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, cartouches went through baroque and rococo phases, frequently featuring figures and scenes depicting the ambiance of the period and place. These often are splashed with a greater variety of hues, as are the depictions of ships, dolphins, mermaids, sea monsters or human figures; coloring also can be more vibrant on the maps' compass roses (indicating direction on the map).

Some antique map dealers contend that "later" or "modern" hand-coloring of previously black-and-white antique maps is acceptable--provided it is done properly and in the style of the original mapmakers of that period. Other dealers believe such modern embellishments are blasphemous and destroy the value of the maps. And forgeries are not unheard of. "There's a lot of new coloring that's going on," Arader warns. "And there are some very sophisticated Italians who will re-engrave maps, make copies. So you've got to be careful. You really should take your map to an expert before you buy it." As to whether color or black and white looks better (or is worth more), that is a personal preference.

Perhaps the most frequently asked--and difficult to answer--question about an antique map is: What's it worth? Sometimes even auction houses don't really know. In a 1996 article for Mercator's World, Vermont-based dealer F. J. Manasek recalled the time a few years earlier when an auction house relied on an out-of-date price guide to estimate the value of a "scarce" map. It listed the map as worth about $16,000 to $19,000--unaware that in two previous, private transactions between collectors, other examples of the same map had been sold for $40,000 and $70,000, respectively.

"There probably weren't a dozen people who knew of these transactions, but they affected profoundly the price of the map and made the public-knowledge price listed in the guide worse than worthless," Manasek wrote. (Fortunately for the auction house and seller, the bidders were of the few who knew the value--and bid accordingly.)

Manasek said that "age alone does not determine price" in the trade, noting that he owns "a stack of maps printed in the sixteenth century" that he sells for about $120 apiece. "These are genuine, authentic, guaranteed original maps. And there are some maps from the same period that fetch six-figure prices. What accounts for the disparity?"

In a nutshell, four key items determine a map's value: historical importance, beauty, condition and--last in Arader's estimation--rarity. "I would call [rarity] 'the refuge of the ignorant dealer,' the uneducated dealer who reaches for this word to suck an unwary collector into his grasp," he says. "If it's 'rare,' extremely rare, and it has no historical importance; [or] it's ugly; and it's been restored and it has no margins and there's a tear in it--who cares? Why would you want it? So 'rarity' is important [only] if the other three categories are [met]."

As to a map's historical significance, the potential collector wants to determine if the map in question is a "breakthrough map," as Manasek wrote in Mercator's World. He notes that this can be answered by asking: "Was it made by an important mapmaker? Does it show, for the first time, a radically different or improved image? Is it linked to political events, essentially a cartopolitical statement of significance?"

With respect to a map's "beauty"--well, that may be in the eye of the beholder, but certain standards apply, according to Arader: "Was the mapmaker talented? Did he make a beautiful map, with beautiful baroque, rococo, mannerist or Renaissance cartouches [or] designs? How well is the map engraved? How good is the calligraphy on the map? Is it good to look at?" Basically, the new collector has to "learn the aesthetic values" other map collectors prize, Arader says.

The condition of an antique map can affect its value, but given the fact that they are printed on such a fragile medium as paper, sometimes the mere fact that they still exist is amazing. Allowances can be made. "Minor repairs, such as neatly repaired centerfold splits, marginal tears or small wormholes, do not influence the value of a map to a very large extent," Manasek wrote. "But whole areas replaced in facsimile, replaced margins, loss of image by trimming, heavy staining or water damage all reduce the price of a map. In the present market, a heavily damaged and repaired Blaeu Americas may not be a bargain for $2,000. A superb example for $6,500 is."

If seventeenth-century Blaeu Americas aren't your cup of tea, there are other eras that are likely to yield good deals in antique maps. Many savvy collectors consider the nineteenth century a prime period in which to bargain-hunt. As a great age for inland exploration not only in the United States but in Africa and Australia, it was a time of enormous advances in geographical knowledge. There were tremendous changes in the mapmaking industry itself. And many maps of the period still remain reasonably priced--the "$100 maps" stuffed in the lower shelves of a dealer's cabinets.

While he thinks that many maps from the nineteenth century remain "a bargain," Arader says that "if I had to make a guess now, I think the biggest bargains will be the twentieth century--because in two, three years, the twentieth century is going to be no more. The way the interstate road system was developed, the way that the West was developed, the way that various parts of the country grew very, very fast; in other words, maps showing how quickly Florida, Texas and California grew in the twentieth century--it's an interesting story. So city plans or state plans or things really detailing the growth of those three states I think will be--are--major bargains."

As for those dubious collectors who hunt for "bargains" with a razor blade, haunting the dimly lit stacks of the nation's great research libraries in search of maps, the days of easy pickings may be over--at least at those institutions that take threats to their security seriously.

For example, the Library of Congress has responded vigorously not just to the loss of maps but to the theft or mutilation of hundreds of thousands of volumes. It has placed theft-detection tags in high-risk books, installed security cameras and electronic doors to limit entry to its stacks, instituted police patrols, and restricted the number of researchers allowed into the general collection.

At the Peabody Library--where Gilbert Bland was caught--surveillance cameras have been installed in the stacks and visitors no longer are allowed to "hide away in the alcoves," but now must look at rare books in a central area overseen by a monitor, says Cynthia Requardt of the Hopkins' library system's Division of Special Collections and Archives. Peabody was plundered of 27 maps--and got only 14 of them back. The others presumably were stolen during Bland's earlier "sweeps" of the library and sold before he was caught.

"Every library with which I have spoken has said they've tried to increase their security," says FBI Special Agent Gray Hill of the Charlottesville, Virginia, office. He has undertaken the difficult task of trying to reunite the maps that Bland stole with their owners. None of the maps bears any marks identifying it as the property of a particular institution (librarians get "sick at the idea" of stamping rare books with "Property of" notations, Hill says); and some of Bland's victims refuse to believe he sliced maps out of books in their collections--even after he told authorities he had. "Being in denial is nothing new to libraries," says Hill, who has returned more than 150 maps from Bland's booty but still has about 100 whose origins may never be determined.

Eileen Brady, a librarian at Washing-ton State University and editor of the quarterly Focus on Security, worries that too many libraries "believe 'it'll never happen to us,' and won't change their procedures. I don't think my colleagues learn anything. If you mention Gilbert Bland's name to people, you'd get a dumb response like 'Who's that?' The problem is it is only after the fact that they take security precautions."

Although Brady, like many of Bland's other victims, does not believe the thief spent enough time in prison, the federal law against thefts from museums and libraries has been strengthened, and prosecution of map thieves has been persistent. Now the FBI can become involved in a theft even if the stolen item does not cross state lines, provided it is more than 100 years old and worth more than $5,000.

"The FBI does a fantastic job of carefully and thoughtfully prosecuting the people who are stealing maps," says Arader. "It's not as big a problem as it was, because so many people have gone to jail. So people now realize--the little creeps that started doing this--that if they [try to] sell something to someone like Graham Arader, I will not stop until I've stuck you in the slammer."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).

Here are some tips in exploring the world of map collecting.

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