“The maps of ancient Jerusalem are all fabrication, while celestial maps are an attempt to impose the Greek myths on to the night sky,” says Jay Walker of the Walker Library of the History of the Human Imagination in Connecticut.
Today, printed maps of the ancient world have never been as prized, or as celebrated for their rarity and their beauty. The oldest date back to the early days of printing in the 15th century, when European explorers started documenting their travels, and hit an aesthetic high in the elaborately decorated works of the Dutch mapmakers of the 17th century, the so-called Dutch Golden Age.
Although prices for antique maps start at about $100, most purchases are in the low five figures. The most expensive single printed map sold to date is Abel Buell’s A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America from 1784, which fetched $2,098,500 at Christie’s, New York in 2010. Seven-figure sales such as this are becoming more and more common, with dealers pinning great hopes on increasing interest from the Far East and Southeast Asia. “I’m off to Hong Kong for the second time in two months,” says Daniel Crouch, of the eponymous map-dealing firm in London. “Five years ago I would buy in China and sell in the U.S. Now it’s the reverse.”
What are these new buyers going after? So-called “curiosity maps”, in which land takes the form of figures – monarchy or politicians, for example – are well-liked. Among the most sought-after are Ptolemaic maps, based on the shape of the world set out by Claudius Ptolemy around AD 150; the last one sold to an individual by Sotheby’s in 2006 was printed in 1477 and fetched £2.1 million (about $3.4 million). The most undervalued, Crouch believes, are whole atlases. “You can get a globally significant world atlas collection for the same price as a mediocre Impressionist painting,” he says.
Christie’s, meanwhile, has seen prices soaring for masterpieces which are rare, in fine condition and have an excellent provenance. Just two years ago at the Kenneth Nebenzahl sale in New York, the auction house sold a 1542 portolan atlas by Battista Agnese for $2,770,500 – well above the original estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000.
Abel Buell’s 1784 A New and Correct Map of the United States of America
The internet has also had a huge part to play in rising prices, creating “a transparent marketplace where map and globe values can be easily traced,” according to Julian Wilson, specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie’s. “It’s also facilitated the globalization of the market, which was dominated by Western buyers ten years ago,” he adds.
Massimo De Martini of the Altea Gallery in London points out, however, that many people still like to make their purchase in person. “The internet is like our shop window,” he says. “Part of the fun of collecting is the hunt. But people still try to feel the quality for themselves.”
Experts advise new buyers to start small, looking for anything with original hand-painted colour on it, and to collect what they love. For Daniel Crouch, this is maps that are unusual. “My favourite item is an original 1930 copy of a 16th-century book called Astronomicum Caesareum by Petrus Apianus,” he says. “It’s made with moving parts and is full of dragons.” Wilson advises looking to the skies. “Celestial maps such as Star Spread by E. Hattie Rogers (1863) will pick up soon,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, new territories are still being charted. “NASA has produced a complete set of geological maps of the moon,” says Wilson. “One day, they, too, will be seen as a part of history.”
Where to buy antique maps
Altea Gallery, London, alteagallery.com; Antipodean Books, Maps and Prints, New York, antipodean.com; Christie’s, New York, christies.com; Geographicus Rare Antique Maps, New York, geographicus.com; Sotheby’s, New York, sothebys.com; Daniel Crouch Rare Books, London, crouchrarebooks.com
Where to see antique maps and globes
The Map & Atlas Museum of La Jolla, San Diego, mamlj.org; The National Maritime Museum, London, nmm.ac.uk; The British Library, London, bl.uk; The Newberry Library,
Your address: The St. Regis New York
Images courtesy of Christie's and Sotheby's
A hand-stitched Star Spread,
approximately 5 feet x 8 feet, made by E. Hattie Rogers
in upstate New York in 1863