How to start collecting antique Maps

Ashley Baynton-Williams is a map-dealer and researcher based in London. He is a regular attendee of the London Map Fair and has written a number of books on the subject and reveals how to start collecting antique maps.

For the would-be collector the range of individual printed maps – rather than manuscript material and atlases – is such that his options are limited only by his interests and imagination. As a first suggestion, I would draw a distinction between buying antique maps and collecting them; a magpie assemblage – maps bought without an underlying theme – may be enjoyable, but a collection – where there is an overarching theme – is altogether more satisfying and when it comes to sale (and one needs to have half an eye on the resale value of a collection) can have a value greater than the sum of the parts.

There are three broad types of collection: vertical, horizontal and thematic.

Vertically Unchallenged

Fantasy map of Europe as a queen
Fantasy map of Europe as a queen from Bunting’s Itinerarium. Magdeburg, 1581, German edition. Woodcut, printed area 300 x 370mm, £2,200

The vertical collection takes an area and attempts to collect the range of maps from the earliest onwards. In England this was traditionally a county, city or island. For an English or Welsh county the earliest map was printed in the 1570s by Christopher Saxton; by 1900, perhaps 150 separate maps of each county had appeared, often in multiple printings, some with geographical changes and improvements. In the United States, there are the individual states, for the European countries the various subdivisions, but also there are the national maps.

While most parts of Europe were well mapped relatively early (say by 1570 or 1595, respectively by Ortelius and Mercator), the interior of Africa was only infilled in the late 19th century; further afield, the Americas, South-East Asia and the East Indies, the Far East and Australasia and the Pacific are not found on the earliest printed maps, but slowly emerge as European discoveries and knowledge were inserted on the map.

With this type of collection, the collector can see his region evolve from a general broad-brush depiction, passing through the scientific cartographic revolution of the 18th century into the relative modernity of the 19th century – the ‘blank spaces of the map filled in’, as one film character put it.

Horizontal Position

An incunable world map decorated with bizarre creatures.
An incunable world map decorated with bizarre creatures. Schedel, Nuremberg, Anton Koberger, 1493, Latin text edition. Coloured woodcut, printed area 370 x 520mm, £14,000.

A horizontal collection, in contrast, tends to be focused by period rather than geography. One might pick an individual map-maker: John Speed’s maps from his British county atlas (1612) and world atlas (1627) are particularly desirable for their decorative elements, coupled with the charming English description printed on the reverse. Sebastian Munster’s maps from the 1540s and 1550 were printed from woodcut and combine the appealing naiveté of the medium with being among the earliest collectable maps of most parts of the world, while also being comparatively inexpensive. The maps of Claudius Ptolemy who created the first series of printed maps of the known regions of the world, first published in 1477 (but copied and reprinted in new format by later  mapmakers up to 1598) would be a rewarding case-study.

Rather later, the large maps of Aaron Arrowsmith, the finest cartographer of his generation are much sought after for the latest discoveries that they incorporate. However the maps of his nephew John are readily available and comparatively inexpensive.

Collecting Antique Maps By Theme

Speed’s map of Surrey
A first edition example of Speed’s map of Surrey. London, Sudbury & Humble, 1611. Coloured. 385 x 510mm, £2,000.

Thematic collections take as a focus a subject. The most obvious are maps drawn in the shape of people or animals: Leo Belgicus, a lion in the shape either of the Low Countries or the Dutch Republic is particularly famous; but, as elaborate pictures, the finest command high prices. Into the 19th century, geological, railway and canal maps could form a fascinating study. Another category is carto graphic misconceptions: there is a large body of literature (and a larger number of maps) that show California as an island, from the 1625 to as late as 1800, but there were the Mountains of the Moon, with two large lakes, in central Africa, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lake Parime in Guiana, complete with the city of Eldorado, fictional islands in Lake Superior, imaginary islands in the Atlantic (Brasil, Frisland and Pepys Island – named after the diarist, then Secretary to the Admiralty) and islands off the East Indies said, if one believes the theories, to present a knowledge of Australian predating generally accepted dates.

Battle Cry

A personal favourite of mine are battle-plans (alas, it is impossible to be both collector and dealer), but these have always seemed under-appreciated, and under-valued in terms of their rarity and historical importance.

I’ve always thought a collection of maps of islands of the world would be fun: early mapmakers loved to fill blank space with ships and all manner of sea-monster, taken from mariners’ accounts or the mapmaker’s imagination. Ortelius’ Iceland from 1585 is the most famous of this genre, but maps from Benedetto Bordone’s island book of 1528 are readily available – and a huge number of others. Then there are the creatures and animals used to decorate the maps.

As Jonathan Swift wryly commented:

So Geographers in Afric-maps
With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps;
And o’er uninhabitable Downs
Place Elephants for want of Towns.

Sebastian Munster showed a cyclops in West Africa, Cornelis de Jode a dragon in New Guinea, and so the list goes on.

Apart from the maps themselves there are numbers of mapmakers’ portraits; early atlases often had elaborately engraved title pages, designed to catch the eye of a would-be purchaser and these have proved a consistent collectable in the past.

Start Collecting Antique Maps

So, what are the first steps for a beginner who wants to start collecting antique maps? It’s best to identify a theme early on; many buyers come to regret their first few purchases, as they come to sharpen their focus, but there’s no harm in that. A more important recommendation is having a clear idea of the practicability of the theme, not least in cost compared to available budget!

Collecting antique maps such as this London Underground, by Henry C. Beck
The First Issue of the iconic map of the London Underground, by Henry C. Beck, London. Colour-printed map, 155 x 255mm, folded twice as issued, £2,500.

There also has to be a consideration of whether such maps are available. There’s no point trying to collect 16th-century town plans of New York or Hong Kong, for example. There are none. Similarly, recently there has been a shift in demand for London maps: everyone wants the Braun and Hogenberg, the earliest surviving printed map of London from 1572; but for their next map people now want to see their neighbourhood, street or better, their house. Yet, what we now think of as the residential areas of London are all late additions, not even a glimmer in the planner’s eye in 1572. At that date, the City of London was connected to the City of Westminster by a single road – the Strand – with a frontage of building backing on to fields on either side, and slowly expanded thereafter. By 1830, the built-up area of London really only extended to the top of Regent’s Park in the north, to Kensington Church Street in the west, the docks in the east and the Oval south of the river. It was in the rapid expansion in the latter part of the 19th century that ‘suburbs’ such as Chelsea, Kensington, Hammersmith, Ealing, Islington, Hampstead and Highgate, Finsbury Park, Stratford, Lewisham, Camberwell and so on, were built and then mapped.

In other ways London has many modern features: the Beck London Underground map, and derivatives, from the 1930s are now proving a popular collectable. But why collect maps at all? In 1570, the great Elizabethan scientist and author, John Dee wrote (put into modern English)

“While, some to beautify their Halls,
parlours, chambers, galleries, studies, or libraries
with: other some, for things past, as battles
fought, earthquakes, heavenly firings, & such
occurrences, in histories mentioned: thereby
lively, as it were, to view the place, the region
adjoining, the distance from us, and such other
circumstances. … Some, either for their own
journeys directing into far lands: or to
understand of other mens travells. To conclude,
some, for one purpose: and some for an other,
like, love, get and use, Maps, Charts, & Geographical Globes. …”

While there are many admirable books on collecting antique maps, and they have a use, there is really no substitute to going to dealers and actually handling the maps. This gives the opportunity to seek advice and to see what is available, but also and importantly to get a sense of prices; which is why the annual London Map Fair is such a valuable experience.

Photographs provided by Altea Gallery Ltd. Copyright © Altea Gallery Ltd.


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