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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 5)

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World, Vermont-based dealer F. J. Manasek recalled the time a few years earlier when an auction house relied on an out-of-date price guide to estimate the value of a "scarce" map.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.

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