What Sets A Chart Apart?

We asked specialist Caleb Kiffer to reminisce about some of the most interesting and important charts we’ve handled in the last few years. Why charts? We wanted to explore (pun intended) the relationship between a fixed written record–a chart–and something that is known for its inconstancy–the sea. For those who don’t know, a chart is a map that relates specifically to bodies of water. Charts provide information such as the depth of the water, where tides are especially variable, the location of sandbars that lurk below the surface, etc. More than maps, charts had to be kept meticulously up to date, as an unmarked sandbar could cost lives. Here is Caleb’s selection some influential landmarks in the history of charting the open seas:



William Norman, circa 1803

William Norman, Chart from New York to Timber Island Including Nantucket Shoals, variant, Boston, circa 1803. Sold December 5, 2013 for $37,500.


William Norman’s atlas represents some of the earliest charts printed in the Americas. It provided the latest data, symbolically breaking Britain’s grasp on the coast. This chart in particular is interesting because of its unusual shape and the fact that provides eight engraved elevations of Connecticut as seen from the water. Other variants of this map include more information about the topography of the land instead. This appears to be the only example that includes the elevations ever to come to auction.



Robert Laurie & James Whittle, 1797

Robert Laurie and James Whittle, The Complete East-India Pilot, London, 1797. Sold December 8, 2016 for $81,250.


The Complete East-India Pilot, compiled by Robert Laurie and James Whittle, is the pinnacle of eighteenth-century navigational chart-making. It provided superbly beautiful and accurate charts containing all the information navigators required to sail from England to the trade ports of the East Indies and China. The charts show vast improvements upon existing data, supplemented with the most recent discoveries of the skilled British Admiralty and East India Company captains. It would have been used by merchants. One chart in this copy traces the route of two ships from Cape Town to Hong Kong in contemporary hand-color: Captain Henry Bond for the Royal Admiralty in 1792 and Captain Thomas Butler aboard the Walpole in 1794. The fact that this atlas was used on a sea voyage increases its value–most charts used on a ship would be damaged by constant wear and tear, and obviously would have been lost if the ship went down.



Richard Mount & Thomas Page, 1702

Richard Mount and Thomas Page, A Chart of the Easternmost Part of the East Indies and China from Cape Comarin to Japan with the Adjacent Islands, London, 1702. Sold December 8, 2016 for $11,250.


This very rare sea chart of Southeast Asia is one of the earliest English charts of the area, following those of John Seller and John Thornton with the geography benefitting from the previous experience of the Dutch business ventures into the region. The colors on the map were added by hand, and it boasts highlights in gold. Charts like this enabled the spread of British commerce throughout the region; local place names are included along the coast, but few, if any, depths are listed.



Aaron & Samuel Arrowsmith, 1830

Aaron and Samuel Arrowsmith, Chart of the Sandwich Islands, London, 1830. Sold June 7, 2017 for $10,625.


Finally, another example of a chart in action. This very rare chart of Hawaii by Aaron and Samuel Arrowsmith, was consulted in preparation of a voyage. It also reveals the discoveries by recent explorers such as Cook and Vancouver, advancing the accuracy in mapping what would become the Hawaiian Islands.

It was owned by Francis Post, a nineteenth-century whaling captain based in New Bedford, Massachusetts. While piloting his vessel, the Huntress, on her 1832-1836 voyage through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the captain is known to have been in the Hawaiian Islands. While the overall condition of the chart does not immediately suggest it was actually used aboard the Huntress, Post’s inscription–“Francis Post, June 1832”–two months prior to their August departure lends  reason to consider the captain acquired this most accurate chart to prepare for, and consult during the voyage.

The next auction of Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books will be held on June 7, 2018. We will be accepting quality consignments until March 7.