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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 4)

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.

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