Finding your way to collecting maps

While the most rare maps can cost thousands of dollars, many antique maps are surprisingly affordable.

By Leigh Elmore

People collect maps for a myriad of reasons. Some are drawn to the beauty and color of the printed image itself. Some are interested in how mapping a specific region evolved over time. Others are drawn to the texture and smell of the old rag based paper the maps are printed on.

A hand colored map of the world published in Atlas Novus. Offered at auction at Old World Auctions. Unsold. Estimated price, $2,350. (photo courtesy Old World Auctions)

Some seek investment value, and still others are looking for graphic illustrations to decorate their homes.

My own fascination with maps began as a child when my family lived in Tampa, FL. I was given a map of Florida printed on parchment paper and made to appear old. It showed the locations of dozens of buried pirate treasures lining both coasts. I spent hours poring over that map, imagining who buried the treasure and how I could get to the exact location of one.

I soon graduated to the role of navigator for my father while on family trips. I would sit with a gas station road map on my lap, marking our progress. While the road maps that used to be given away at every filling station are now a fond memory with the rise of GPS navigation systems, I still prefer a printed map to GPS just to get the "big picture" of where I am. The Rand-McNally Road Atlas is always stashed somewhere in the car.

Writing for the web site 360.here.com, C. J. Schuler states, "For many aficionados, maps are like any other form of collecting: a passion, or even a mania. Far from being an obstacle, the obsolescence of an object is almost a precondition to its becoming a collector's item; witness the enduring popularity of vintage cars. This was the case long before the arrival of digital mapping. People have been collecting old maps for hundreds of years; almost as soon as the information contained in a map becomes superseded, it acquires a historical interest."

Old maps trace the history of our understanding of the planet we inhabit, reflect the growth of our towns and cities, and chart changing frontiers. An atlas just 25 years old is a memorial to countries that no longer exist: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and Yugoslavia come to mind.

Map of North and South America credited to Nicolaes Visscher I, Amsterdam, 1677. California is shown as an island. Priced at $1,900 at Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc. (photo courtesy RareMaps.com)

 

Still an affordable hobby

Collectible maps can range in price from just a few dollars to well into the stratosphere, depending on the rarity and condition.

Lloyd Zimmer, an antique map and book dealer from Chanute, KS maintains that a person can get into map collecting today without taking out a second mortgage on the house. "You can go to any reputable map dealer on-line, Old World Auctions, for example and find maps ranging in price from less than $100 on up to $100,000 and beyond," Zimmer said. "For a beginner, collecting maps is still affordable. In fact, it is more affordable today than it was 20 years ago."

He said that map prices spiked near the turn of the 21st century because of an interior design trend that utilized old maps as wall decorations. Lots of people were using maps in their décor. When the trend cooled, prices dropped.

Zimmer still keeps an inventory of old maps to sell. "In general, prices are not what they were 20 years ago. Most maps will only command about 50 percent to 80 percent of their value at that time. I have a lot of 19th century maps in good condition that I sell for $30 or so," Zimmer said.

"Many of the better selections don't show up in the Midwest," he said, which is why he monitors several on-line auction houses and dealers to keep stocked. With his location in southeast Kansas, Zimmer keeps a selection of maps focusing on the central plains states ranging in age from the late 18th century to early 20th century.

In addition to Old World Auctions, Zimmer recommends Swann Auction Galleries (www.swanngalleries.com) in New York for its impeccable reputation for honesty. He monitors eBay but is wary of buying on it for fear of misrepresentation or more often that not, "the seller just doesn't have the facts" on the item being sold. There are dozens of tales of people being misled on sales sites that don't come with guarantees of authentication. "It's not so much a matter of 'buyer beware', but rather 'buyer be educated'," he said. "Buyers need to know what they are buying."

Fortunately, many map collectors are willing to share their expertise with novices. Map fairs held in some larger U.S. cities are excellent venues to research maps and talk with knowledgeable collectors and dealers.

Today, Zimmer operates an appointment-only business in Chanute. But previously, he ran a shop in downtown Topeka, where he says that the entire range of humanity would come through the doors, "everybody from homeless individuals, to corporate executives and politicians." He always kept a few maps open on top of flat spaces and "everyone who came in would stop and look."

 

A large engraved chart of Florida, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean on three sheets of joined paper. By Gerard Valk and Peter Schenk, circa 1700, Amsterdam. Sold for $10,625 at Swann Maps. (photo courtesy Swann Maps)

 

What is an antique map?

An antique map was printed more than 100 years ago by one of three main processes, according to information from Art Source International.

The earliest maps were generally printed from a wooden block, which had been cut in relief (the printed area standing out from the rest) and then inked. Most of these maps were never colored.
Copper and steel engravings form the vast majority of antique maps that can be found today. In this process the image was cut, in reverse, into the metal plate, which was then inked, placed with a sheet of paper in a press and the ink in the grooves would produce the image.

Copper, a softer metal, in common use from the early 1500s until about 1820, would produce relatively few maps before having to be beaten out and re-engraved. Steel was introduced in the early 1800s and quickly replaced copper because finer lines could be engraved and far more maps printed on this harder metal. Nearly all engraved maps dated after 1830 were produced on steel.

Surface printing or lithography also started in the early 1800s and allowed the mapmaker to draw directly on a specially prepared stone. This was cheaper and faster as no engraver was needed. But most lithographic maps have a fuzzy quality, which does not endear them to many.

By the late 1880s modern machine lithography and printing were taking over and maps lost much of their decorative quality.

 

Making it personal

Trends come and trends go in map collecting as with everything else. Experts warn, however, that following trends is not the best strategy for starting a map collection.

"A map collection should be personal," according to information from Old World Auctions (oldworldauctions.com). "A map collection can be meaningful in many ways: it can trace your ancestry, showcase places you've traveled, or spark your intellectual curiosity about a particular time in history,"

There are so many different types of maps to collect that it can feel overwhelming if you take a shotgun approach. It is important to select a focal point in your collection and stick with it. A big picture (and relatively expensive) theme could be the ever-changing map of North America over the years. A small picture (and relatively inexpensive) theme could be the changing shape and names of counties in Kansas before and after the Civil War. Over time you can either further refine or even expand your area of interest depending on your time and budget.

A map of Missouri and Kansas with counties delineated from the 1866 edition of the Johnson and Ward Atlas. Estimated price, $150. (photo courtesy Geographicus Rare Antique Maps)

 

Supply and demand

At the foundation of the map collecting hobby is the fact that there were only so many maps printed using antique processes. George Karakehian, owner of Art Source International in Boulder, CO emphasizes that fact. "A major change in antique map and print collecting has been the drying up of the map and print supply. It is obvious that only so many were produced and they are not making any more. It is a case of supply and demand with the supply side being fixed and the demand side increasing on a daily basis. In any other business if you were running out of product you would order more. In this business you just can't call one of your many suppliers and replace sold inventory. In the map and print business the difficult part is the buying, the easy part is the selling."

Nevertheless, Karakehian hasn't seen runaway price gouging for rare maps. "Map prices have had a very interesting growth pattern. With most maps the price growth has been very consistent. There have been no major ups and no major downs," he said. "Antique maps have not been treated as collectibles with the 'feeding frenzy' of buying that we see in the collectible arena. Antique map prices have conservatively increased every year that we have been involved. Perhaps the difference has been that map collectors actually love what they collect and are not buying their maps with future resale as their only driving force. Map collectors know that replacing a sold map is difficult."

As Zimmer noted, some maps can cost thousands of dollars, but there are thousands of maps available for less than $100. This is particularly true with maps published in the 19th century, when maps and atlases became common household items and were, therefore, more widely printed and distributed. Nineteenth century maps of most countries as well as maps of individual U.S. states, counties and cities can readily be found at prices that won't break the budget.

Miniature maps are also very affordable, even those dating back as far as the 1600s, according to Old World Auctions. "Nearly every country and region around the world can be found in miniature map form, and the upside is that they are easier and less expensive to frame."

 

A miniature map of Africa by Jacques Chiquet, circa 1720, which sold for $70 at Old World Auctions. (photo courtesy Old World Auctions)

 

Valuing a map

Some maps are quite common, while others are only offered on the market every few decades. The Old World Auction website offers some advice on how to value a map. In general, a map is worth whatever the market will bear, so it's important to look at how much it has sold for in the past.

"Of course when comparing prices, you have to take into account the differences in condition and color as each of these factors affects the price. Also take into consideration whether the comparable prices are auction results or dealer prices, as the latter will typically be higher."

Two excellent resources for map prices are RareBookHub.com and OldMaps.com and values listed within the last 5-7 years are still considered relevant.

Rare maps, unfortunately, are harder to price, as there is little in the way of comparative shopping. But if you get the opportunity to purchase a really rare map and can afford it, don't miss out. As one collector explained, "The ones that escape you, you think about forever. Particularly the ones that are rare. You never know if you're going to get a second bite of that apple."


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com

Back to the top

Feature Stories Archive — past articles