Collecting 101: Antiquarian Maps

We asked Swann maps specialist Caleb Kiffer a few questions about what to consider when purchasing an antique map.

How important is the map maker when considering a map?  

Abraham Ortelius, Parergon, sive Veteris Geographiae Aliquot Tabulae, bound with Nomenclator Ptolemaicus, Antwerp, 1609. Sold December 2017 for $32,500.

There are names that are synonymous with map collecting that everyone knows—Ortelius, Blaeu, Mercator, Moll, Mitchell, Colton, etc. Recognition is important, but there are plenty of makers that are less frequently talked about whose maps would present no less beauty or historical importance than the famous guys. 

What time period is considered the best for collecting?  

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Dutch Cartography,” and for good reason, as there was such a wealth of new discoveries to be charted and paired together with the period’s scientific and artistic innovation, hugely important maps were published during this time. However, if your interest in collecting lies in, say, the developing history of California, your main period of interest will be the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Does the area the map represents matter?   

James Hamilton Young, A New Map of Texas, with the Contiguous American & Mexican States, Philadelphia, 1836. Sold June 2022 for $11,875.

Personal resonance is what I feel should be the driving factor when deciding on purchasing an antique map.  Something that shows where your family is originally from, where you lived for a couple of years in your 20s, a gift for good friends who honeymooned in a far-off place. If you have a connection with the place you’re looking at on a map, the relationship you feel with it will be that much deeper. It’ll make you smile every time you see it, and that’s the kind of relationship we should all have with our artwork. On a broader scale, the area the map represents absolutely matters. 

What does the size say about a map?  

Richard Hakluyt, Novus Orbis, Paris, 1587. Sold December 2017 for $80,000.

Bigger isn’t always better! One of my favorite, most successful maps wasn’t even 10×10 inches.  But big maps can be very valuable and sought-after too, such as Chatelain’s beautiful map of the Americas, which is over four and a half feet wide.  

Does the condition matter?  

Johannes Blaeu, Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula, Amsterdam, 1662. Sold December 2020 for $23,750.

Condition is important, absolutely—top condition can almost certainly always command top prices and it’s hard not to be tempted to add something new to your collection with virtually no flaws. This Blaeu double-hemisphere world map is a perfect example.  Of course things can go the opposite direction too, when an item has such historical significance that bidders decide the “pretty rough” condition is no concern, as we saw happen with our working copy of Lewis Evans’ Map of the Middle British Colonies.  

Lewis Evans, A General Map of the British Colonies in America, proof copy, annotated, signed & dated by Evans, Philadelphia, 1755. Sold June 2019 for $125,000.

How to know if your map is authentic?  

There’s nothing better to rely on than experience handling this kind of material. It becomes second nature to “just know,” but there are key things to look for to identify a real map versus a reproduction. Paper stock and quality, watermarks, platemark impressions, types of inking, etc.

In what way does rarity factor in?  

A.P. Folie, Plan of the Town of Baltimore and its Environs. Dedicated to the Citizens of Baltimore – Taken upon the Spot by Their Most Humble Servant A.P. Folie, French Geographer, Philadelphia, 1792. Sold June 2019 for $21,250.

A former mentor was wont to say that calling something rare is the refuge of the uneducated dealer. Much more plays into taking an average item to a great item: Historical and cultural significance, i.e., does this map have new printed information which is being seen for the first time by its viewers? Also, Its overall attractiveness; some things are worth a glance, and other things are hard to take your eyes off of. Condition is a factor as well, as we covered earlier. And then finally, rarity. When all four of these aspects come together into one item, it becomes an absolute standout, such as this eighteenth-century map of Baltimore or our darling little Hawaiian children’s atlas from 1840.

He Mau Palapala Aina A Me Na Niele No Ka Hoikehonua, No Na Kamalii, engraving by George Luther Kapeau, Lahainaluna Seminary, 1840. Sold December 2019 for $68,750

Interested in starting your own antique map collection?