Stamped with ornate cartouches, embellished with ships and monsters, old maps are things or rare beauty and great fascination, as well as being increasingly valuable. Gordon F Sander charts the rise of cartographic art.
For Catherine Slowther, the much-in-demand specialist in old maps and atlases at Sotheby’s London, her work is her passion. “To look at an old map is to see the world or one of its parts as it would have been seen by the early explorers, by kinds and governments, by merchants and pilgrims,” she says. “Of all the categories of antique collectibles, old maps have perhaps the most immediate impact.”
Slowther’s enthusiasm for cartography began in the 1980s, when the map trade was relatively quiescent, and she took a job at a London map shop after leaving university. “After two other jobs, and then 14 years at Sotheby’s, the people I used to make tea for now buy and sell through me,” she happily reports. And judging by her packed auctions — where a desirable and significant map by a 16th century Italian cartographer can command upwards of £100,000 — her services are much in demand.
For north London map dealer Yasha Beresiner, the allure of old maps and atlases is about “traveling with your fingers and letting your imagination run wild.” Beresiner is a founding member of the International Map Collectors’ Society (Imcos) and proprieter of InterCol, a winsomely cluttered antiques store in Islington’s Camden Passage. This engaging shop, replete with all manner of cartographic treasures and curiosities, is where my own interest in maps was first stoked after tumbling in on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It contains everything from elaborately crafted English country maps dating from the 17th century, and worth hundreds of pounds, to pound-a-piece map postcards. Elsewhere in London, dealers such as The Map House and Jonathan Potter, as well as the twice-yearly Christie’s International Travel and Natural History sales, offer similarly enticing selections.
As limited productions items that combine art, science, mathematics, geography, history, and often mythology and fantasy, maps readily fascinate. Stamped with unusual cartouches, embellished with ships, monsters, costumed figures and the like, and often wildly, even comically, inaccurate (who says California isn’t an island?), old decorative maps, especially those from the so-called golden age of cartography spanning the 16th to the 18th centuries, are downright fun, as well as being beautiful art-objects. Not surprisingly in a city with a strong historical consciousness, among the most popular types of maps at Intercol and other London map shops are maps of London itself.
“The kick for me is seeing the growth of London over 500 years,” says John Lehman, an avid collector of maps of London and other English cities, and habitué of Intercol. “And the maps are lovely in themselves.” Lehman’s pride and joy is a 1673 map of London by the great English cartographer John Ogilby, who started life as a dancing master and finished as the King’s Cosmographer and Geographic Printer.
Besides their historical and decorative appeal, maps also make excellent investments, with prices for the finest maps showing dramatic increases at auctions on both side of the Atlantic. Two years ago, an extremely rare and beautiful world map by the Piedmontese cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi stunned the map world when it went under the hammer for £135,000, the highest price paid at auction for a printed world map.
At Sotheby’s, Slowther has great hopes for two unusually fine, and very different items which are going up for auction at her next major sale on December 14: she expects a marvelously detailed and ornate map of the world by English cartographer John Speed, published in 1676, which includes his famed “Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World,” to fetch between £50,000 and £70,000, and a wondrously incorrect map of the Americas by Venetian cartographer Paolo Forlani to achieve upwards of £100,000. “The big surprises,” adds Slowther, “are the quirky, rare things.” As an example she cites a beautiful and somewhat hallucinogenic yellow and green vellum manuscript map of North America, cartographer unknown, from about 1670, which had been estimated at £7,000-£10,000 before it went up for auction at Sotheby’s last June, and sold for £25,000. In short, it’s not an entirely predictable market, which only adds to the excitement of major map auctions.
“There is new money on the market and potential customers see atlases and rare maps as cheap alternatives to Impressionist paintings and old masters,” suggests Slowther.
“There has been a tremendous increase in the price of maps across the board,” agrees Gary Garland, map specialist at Swann Galleries in New York, which has been holding map auctions for 20 years. Maps of the US are, not surprisingly, his strongest item.
Even Garland was somewhat taken aback when an 1850 fold-up map of Texas by Robert Creuzbaur, a not especially noted 19th century US cartographer, sold for $79,000, making it the most expensive map ever sold at Swann.
“The story of the map market over the past 20 years has been a happy one of increase in value and decrease in availability,” says Beresiner. Nevertheless, he and his top clients advise against plunging into maps for investment purposes only. In any case, they say, you’ll probably end up loving your maps so much that you won’t want to part with them.
How much do you need to start your own collection? Not much, say the experts. “Maps are still undervalued as antiques and although it is becoming more difficult to find rare material, anyone can start a collection for a few pounds,” says Slowther.
She recommends collecting 19th century atlases and old state maps from the U.S. Another widely tipped area is maps of France, ignored, for some reason, by the French themselves, making it easy to find bargains. “It’s such a pity,” says Intercol assistant Claire Lauruol, who is French. “They” — meaning her fellow countrymen — “are missing something from their history.” Lauruol says there are basically two ways of collecting maps: “By place, and by cartographer. There is a young doctor who comes in here and collects nothing but maps of Cornwall. Then there are other people who won’t look at anything else but a speed of a Blaeu [Willem Janszoon, the noted 17th century Dutch cartographer].” Before you collect by cartographer, of course, you need to know something about the history of cartography. Slowther recommends Antique Maps by Carl Moreland and David Bannister (Phaidon, 1993) as a good introduction and reference work.
“Collect what you like and try to become knowledgeable about your special interest,” is John Lehman’s parting advice, “and sit back and enjoy yourself.”