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Antique maps provide a fascinating link between the past and the present.  At the time of publication, the map-maker’s work represented a vision of reality, often presented within a familiar artistic motif.  With the passage of time, the expansion of knowledge, and the spread and intensification of the human presence, old maps take on a unique historical dimension.  One's interest may be arroused by a connection between a map and the experience of a particular place.  The artistry of period cartography may arouse one's appreciation.  But where to learn more?

The "General References" and “Specialized References” (Page 14) provide a good overview of early cartography.  Many of these books can be found in the larger public libraries.  Some of these are still in print or can be obtained from those map dealers who sell reference books.  Another mine of information are the catalogues of antiquarian map dealers, many of which present the historical context and detailed descriptions of the items offered for sale.  The “Directory of Dealers” (Page 53) makes note of those who issue catalogues.  Some dealers may charge a nominal fee for their catalogues to defray the printing and mailing costs.

A visit to a map dealer in your area or on your travels is time well spent.  An extensive listing appears in the "Directory of Dealers" which is cross-referenced by city and state for those in the United States.  Most dealers will be happy to discuss maps with you and show you their stock. While some dealers may require an appointment, it is generally advisable to call ahead, even if the establishment has shop hours.  This way the dealer can better focus on your interests and you can determine if his stock might include what you are seeking.

Some collectors choose to concentrate on a geographical area, for example, New England, Holy Land, Africa, Japan, Australia, the Arctic, and so on.  Others collect world maps, celestial charts, decorative maps, very early maps, miniature maps, battle plans, or maps and charts showing early exploration.  Others prefer to concentrate on a particular map-maker.  Some enjoy tracing the evolution of cities through city plans and views.  Some collect oddities, such as maps showing California as an island, or countries represented as allegorical figures.  Places of ancestry, or where one has lived or traveled can be another focus.  The possibilities are limited only by one's imagination.  When corresponding with dealers, it is best to give them as clear an idea of your interests as possible.  They are then able to keep your name and your wishes on file and quote prices to you on items that may not appear in their catalogues.

Acquiring an interesting collection need not drive one into bankruptcy, but money is a factor in the acquisition of the more celebrated and rare maps.  When buying a map, it is well to ask whether it will be kept for a decade or so.  If the answer is yes, and the price reasonable, buy it!  A map that might not be especially rare may suddenly become scarce when you are looking for it.  If you are unsure about the map, it is better to do some further research and think it over for a few days.

Compared to other art forms and antiquarian objects, old maps are reasonably priced.  But buying an antique map as an investment map solely because it is expected to increase in value is risky.  Although antiquarian map prices have appreciated in recent years, there is no guarantee that the trend will continue.  Further, the market is relatively illiquid because of the need to match a buyer with a defined and perhaps narrow objective with a particular map.  Making this match is the function of a dealer; it takes time and presence of mind; it is definitely not "commodity trading".  While antique maps will probably continue to increase in value in the long run due to the law of supply and demand, it is probably safer, and definitely more fun, to concentrate on maps of special interest to the individual.

Maps can be purchased in person or through the mail.  Buying face to face is perhaps most satisfactory, since the map can be discussed with the dealer.  A substantial portion of the antiquarian map trade is by mail, however.  Usually new mail customers will be required to send payment with their order.  The return policy and shipping charges can be found in the dealer's catalogue.  Most dealers will let you return merchandise within a few days for a full refund, except possibly for the shipping charge.  Maps can also be bought at auction, either in person or sometimes by mail.  Although auctions can be the source of some real bargains, it can be risky because sales are usually final unless the item was mis-described.  Sometimes old maps are to be found in establishments that sell mainly other items.  Art galleries, antique stores, and used book stores often have a map or two.

The keeping and display of a collection can be a problem.  Framing is a suitable way to view a small collection or a selection of favorite maps.  This protects them from wear and soiling due to handling, enhances their beauty and enlarges the opportunities for appreciation.  However, any dealer can tell you about framed maps that have been brought to the shop that were damaged by improper framing and care.  One-hundred-percent acid-free rag matting material should be used to avoid harming the map, which may be in contact with the matting for 50 years or more.  Under no circumstances should a map be dry mounted or pasted to a board or trimmed to fit the frame.  In hanging framed maps, direct sunlight or constant fluorescent light should be avoided because the ultraviolet component causes the paper to deteriorate and color to fade.  Note that antiquarian maps are almost unique among wall objects insofar as they require reading up close as well as viewing from afar.

Framing may be impractical for a larger collection.  Flat blueprint files, available from office equipment suppliers, may solve the storage problem.  The maps can be kept flat in the drawers in acid-free, archival-quality folders or plastic sleeves (not all plastic is inert) which can be purchased at art supply houses.  Maps may be stored rolled, but the paper has a memory and may not easily uncurl and lay flat; accidental rips can occur if they are inspected frequently or without great care.  Maps backed with cloth or paper should be kept flat, if possible, to prevent peeling of the paper from the backing. Brittle or otherwise fragile paper should be kept in individual clear, archival-quality plastic protectors.  Maps that fold down to a smaller size should be folded and unfolded as little as possible to avoid separations along the folds.  Temperature and humidity should be kept as near to museum standards as possible, that is, room temperature, with humidity in the mid-range, without a great deal of variation.

Be cautious when contemplating repairs or restoration.  Never, never repair tears with self-adhesive tapes, especially transparent tape or masking tape.  The adhesive on some brands causes the paper to brown, and some tapes are difficult to remove, even for a professional.  While some collectors may be quite capable of making routine repairs with archival materials, it may be well to consult a professional conservator.  Often a small outlay, even for such procedures as deacidification, can protect a substantially larger investment.  The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (1717 K Street, N.W., Suite 301, Washington, D.C. 20006; Tel: (202)-452 9545, Fax. (202) 452-9328) maintains a Referral System and a directory of members by professional specialties, including "Books and Paper".

Factors Affecting Value

Over time, value is determined by supply and demand.  The attribution of value is based on reports of transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers who are appropriately informed about the object in question.  There are some general factors that can be taken into account, which can be placed in three categories: those related to the identity, condition and color.


HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE.  Maps which are pivotal in the history of exploration and cartography tend to be in great demand.  Particularly sought after are maps that are the first to show some discovery or event.  Examples might be maps initially revealing features of the New World or with the first depiction of an important battle.  A derivative map of similar appearance, published a few years later, might be worth considerably less.  The relative importance of a particular map is usually difficult to judge until it is placed in an historical context.  It is thus vital to be as well informed as possible through reading and observation in an area of interest.

REGION DEPICTED.  This factor is probably most important in explaining the wide range in the price of maps from a given source, say an atlas by Ortelius, Blaeu, or Sanson.  "World" maps are of global interest; demand is high and prices follow.  Collectors in certain countries have developed a particular fondness for maps of their own regions:  Americans, Australians, Canadians, the Dutch, the English, Germans, and others have a long tradition of collecting, with the result that maps of these areas tend to be more expensive.  Other regions in demand include Bermuda, some of the West Indian islands and, increasingly, Japan and the Far East.  Maps of other areas, which may be remote, less affluent or with alternative cultural interests, tend to be less expensive.  Reduced demand may be the result of adverse currency exchange rates and inconvertibility.  Nevertheless, a market does exist among emigrés and travelers.  And since maps of some remote regions can be artistically attractive, those seeking decorative maps can often find bargains in the Africa and Asia bins of dealers.

THE MAP-MAKER.  For similar maps, the maker can strongly influence the price.  To take one example, Ortelius and de Jode both produced similar maps at about the same time.  However, Ortelius produced far more editions of his atlas, making de Jode maps relatively scarce by comparison.  Thus, de Jode maps appear far less frequently on the market; that is, the supply is less.  The result is that maps of comparable areas from de Jode's atlas are considerably more expensive than those of Ortelius.

AGE.  For similar maps, the older map is generally the more valuable.  Using age as the sole basis of evaluation is risky, since some maps from the 1500s can still be purchased for under $100, while some maps of the 1800s are worth thousands.

SIZE.  For maps of about equal age and subject matter, larger maps tend to be more valuable.  Folio maps of an area will bring considerably more than miniature or pocket versions by the same map-maker.  Larger maps allow for more detail and decoration, and make a more impressive display.

ÆSTHETIC QUALITIES.  Many buyers intend to frame their maps for display.  Naturally a map with sea monsters, scrollwork, decorative borders, sailing ships, gargoyles, putti, and the like are much more tempting to such buyers, and consequently decorative maps sell for a premium.


Condition plays a major role in pricing.  When a map is extremely rare, condition may be relatively unimportant, since choice may be simply "to have or to have not."  Another offering may not be forthcoming in a lifetime.  With maps in greater supply, condition becomes a discriminating factor.  Problems affecting appearance are more serious for a decorative map than for an item primarily of historical value.  While very minor flaws, such as tiny spot stains or a slight crease, generally have only a minimal effect on value, more serious problems can cause a substantial disparity in price between copies of the same item.

STAINS.  Several types of stains plague maps.  Foreign matter such as ink or coffee can be spilled on a map.  Water spills, even of clean water, leave stains by redistributing soluble material in the paper.  Browning, caused by oxidation, tends to occur at the centerfold, where paste contacts the paper.  It also tends to occur at the edges of atlas maps, where the paper was more exposed to airborne pollutants.  Sometimes the entire map browns.  Mildew spots, called foxing, also occurs.  Stains in the printed area are more serious than stains in the blank margin.

TEARS.  From handling and use, many maps eventually develop rips and tears.  Certain maps, especially large folding maps such as those from Moll's The World Described ..., tend to develop weakness and tears along the fold lines.  Maps folding into books are stressed at the corner of the guard holding them into the book.  Maps in atlases often develop tears or separations at the centerfold.  Tears affecting only the blank margin are considered less serious than tears entering the printed area.  If the map is to be handled, tears should be repaired to prevent them from lengthening.  Professional restorers can make reversible repairs which are almost invisible.  Under no circumstance should repairs be made with non-archival self-adhesive tapes.

MARGINS.  The blank margins of maps may get trimmed over the years.  It may be the work of the original binder, a recent framer, or it may be a means of removing flaws from a chipped or torn margin.  Trimming reduces value, especially if the margin is less than about one-quarter inch (5 mm.), making it difficult to mat for display.  A few maps normally have narrow margins, among them the larger Dutch sea charts.

CREASES.  This is a minor fault.  Folding maps, or maps with centerfolds, will always show traces of the folds, and this does not affect the value.  Unintended minor creases can usually be flattened out pretty well and are considered unimportant.  Multiple and repeated hard creasing from mis-folding can be visually intrusive and detracts from value.

BACKING.  Sometimes maps are pasted or glued to cheap backing, such as cardboard, pressboard, or brown paper.  This can substantially reduce value.  Paper conservators can often reverse this form of abuse with a minimum of side effects if modern mounting material has not been used.  In other cases, maps are professionally backed, with thin tissue or rice paper.  This is acceptable when done to reinforce a weak or brittle item, but should not be done on a sound copy.


Antique maps come in a variety of color styles.  They may be in full color (also called wash color or body color); full color to the primary subject; outline color of the political subdivisions; highlight color for features such as cities; map border color; cartouche color; any combination of the above heightened with gold, and not least -- uncolored.  Prior to the printed color of the mid to late 19th-century, all coloring was by hand.

Since most decorative maps look better colored, these are the maps in highest demand.  Coloring may be original (also called contemporary, i.e., contemporary with the time of original publication) or modern (i.e., recent).  The original color on some maps may be carried further with modern color, as with later color to a cartouche or the map border.  Further, color from any period can be tastefully and skillfully applied or less so.  Modern color can be historically "correct" or, by contrast, clearly inappropriate.

Collectors seem to agree that original color commands a premium, but this is where agreement ends.  Some prefer the original condition whether with color or without.  Others may choose good modern color instead of an uncolored original.  Most agree that no coloring is preferable to bad, unskilled application of modern color, if for no other reason than that the option remains to have color skillfully applied by a knowledgeable artisan in a way that is historically plausible.  Some maps were almost never colored, such as Dudley's sea charts and U.S. Coast Survey maps.  Knowledgeable collectors might refuse to buy such items if colored.  A few collectors even prefer uncolored examples under any circumstances to better appreciate the engraving.  Collectors should inquire as to the period of the color.  While sometimes it may be difficult to guarantee original color, it may be easier to confirm a suspicion of modern color.

How To Detect Reproductions

An original generally refers to a copy printed more or less at the time the map or view first appeared.  In some cases, maps were printed for a century or more from the same copperplate or woodblock, occasionally with updating to include newer information.  In such cases, as long as the plate or block was being employed commercially, impressions from it are considered to be "originals." Sometimes the block or plate survived to a later time, and was used to print restrikes.  These are often identified by special watermarks or stamps.

Reproductions are a different matter.  They can be defined as impressions made by some process, nowadays usually photographic, based on an original impression.  Reproductions are not necessarily printed recently.  Some 19th-century reproductions exist, many of excellent quality, but most reproductions encountered will have been done in the last few decades.  We have seen some exquisite replicas.  After a degree of exposure to antique maps, one gets to sense the presence of a reproduction.  Some can only be distinguished with certainty by experts.  Many can be detected by those with less experience by applying the following tests:

SIZE.  Reproductions not intended to deceive are often produced somewhat larger or smaller than the original.  Of course, one must know the size of the original.  The Price Record and many cartographic reference books give dimensions which can be helpful in this regard.  The dimensions given here may not be definitive, however, since they are the result of different methods or standards of measurement by the contributing dealers.  Further, variation in humidity can cause changes of a few percent in the dimensions of a sheet of paper.  The measurements in the Price Record are rounded off to the nearest centimeter and half-inch to remove any suggestion of greater accuracy, but they should be sufficient to detect a reproduction intentionally differentiated from the original by size.

COLORING.  Colored reproductions often employ halftone colors.  These consist of patterns of small dots, geometrically arranged, which can be seen quite readily with a magnifying glass.  A few reproductions, however, are colored by hand, just like the originals.

PRINTING QUALITY.  Sometimes reproductions have a slightly blurred appearance.  The black lines do not have the fine, dense quality of a true engraving.  This can show up especially in cross-hatched areas, where the lines may fuse together.

PLATE MARK.  When an engraved map is printed, the impression of the metal plate crushes the paper, resulting in a depressed area.  The depressed area is usually rectangular, and extends slightly beyond the printed area.  This can often be seen, or felt, as a slight step or ridge.  In a few cases, where the paper is thin, or where the map has been trimmed to the border, the plate mark may not be visible.  On a very few reproductions, plate marks have been added to enhance realism.  While visible on steel and copper engravings, a plate mark is normally not found on woodcuts, since much less pressure is used in printing from a wooden block.  It is absent from lithographically produced maps dating from the mid-19th century or later.

LEGENDS.  On most reproductions, there is a legend, usually in fine print, saying something like "Copyright 1968" or "From an original in the Library of Congress."  The legend can be hard to find; some tiny legends have been embedded in the borders of woodcut maps.  If outside the border, the legend might have been trimmed off or there may have been an attempt to erase the legend, although this should leave a thin-spot or scuff marks.

PAPER.  Probably the best method of distinguishing is to study the paper.  Chain marks (see Glossary) are visible on paper made before about 1800.  Some reproductions are printed on modern paper having chain marks, but the markings tend to be more regular on the modern paper.  Watermarks can also be an important clue, but some expertise may be needed in interpreting them.  Many of the folio-sized maps have watermarks, but smaller maps often do not.  Folio atlas maps, and many of smaller size, have a centerfold crease with only the occasional exception of proof copies. The paper on originals tends to have an aged appearance, perhaps being browned, or even brittle, and sometimes having foxing or spotting.  Often originals show signs of use, such as stains, soiling, wear, and tears..  If colored, the pigments sometimes oxidize the paper, which can be seen by looking for browning or even corrosion on the reverse corresponding to the colors on the map.  Originals often show slight offsetting, either of color, or printer's ink, depending on how they were originally bound or folded.

The above advice will help, but there is no substitute for long-term experience.  Before making a commitment to purchase, it is best to consult an experienced dealer.  Some may charge a small amount for authenticating an item.  Local libraries, art galleries, or museums may also be able to help in some cases.
Jon K. Rosenthal
Appeared in Volume 12 (1994).

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