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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

(continued from page 2)

"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."


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