About Antique Maps

1. What is meant by the term ‘antique map’ ?

An antique map is a map printed over 100 years ago by one of three main processes.

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. This type of map can be seen in the work of Munster (c1550) among others. Most of these maps were never coloured.

Copper and steel engraving formed 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 1500’s until about 1820, would produce relatively few maps before having to be beaten out and re-engraved. Steel was introduced in the early 1800’s 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 1800’s and allowed the artist or mapmaker to draw directly on to a specially prepared stone. This was cheaper and faster (no engraver was needed) but most lithographic maps have a fuzzy quality which does not endear them to many. This method can be used with several colours (each colour needs a separate stone) but can result in overlapping of colours in some of the poorer efforts.

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

2. What sizes do antique maps come in?

Obviously they come in all manner of sizes but there are four main groups all dependant on a single sheet of paper and how it can be folded.

Folio refers to maps printed on a complete sheet, generally measuring about 25" by 20".

Quarto refers to maps printed on one quarter of a sheet , generally about 13" by 10".

Octavo deals with maps printed on one eighth of a sheet, generally about 7" by 5".

There are any number of other sizes, often shown as 12mo or 16mo, used by some of the exquisite miniature maps of the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, generally about 3.5" by 4.5".

3. What about colouring?

Some maps were never meant to be coloured, like most of the woodcuts or the early copper engravings of people like Ruscelli, but most antique maps look better with appropriate hand colour.

Ideally one would like to find a map with original hand colour, that is applied at the time it was printed. However not all original hand colour was well done or even applied correctly. So called ‘later’ or ‘modern’ hand colour, skilfully applied, can be aesthetically pleasing, but only if done in a style appropriate to the mapmaker or the map’s period.

Some early hand colour can burn the paper, particularly browns and greens which have oxidized over the centuries - this may be an unavoidable blemish in some maps from the 1600’s.

In the end colour is simply a question of taste for the individual collector.

4. How can I be sure that a map is genuine?

The simple answer is that you cannot, but all reputable dealers (and this is 99% of the antique map trade) will only sell the genuine item. Antique maps are printed on distinctive paper in a definite style so that it is very expensive to succeed in deceiving. Only the most expensive items would be worth faking and there is no evidence that this has been done to any great degree.

There are plenty of reproductions around but they are usually easy to spot and were never intended to deceive. They will often have the date of reproduction on them or be printed on modern glossy paper, rather than the rag paper of past centuries.

In any case it is best to buy from established dealers who will guarantee the authenticity of their stock.

5. What should I collect?

Many factors enter in to this equation, most notably income and interest. Rare, highly sought after maps can be very expensive, sometimes reaching five figures, but others can be classified as the most undervalued of antiques. In what other field could you find an original art item from the 1500’s for less than $100 ?

The good news is that there are many maps still available from around $20 to less than $100 and the collector of items from the 1800’s could still amass a decent portfolio without taking out a bank loan.

Most collections are based around a theme, most usually a country or area of the world, but others may concentrate on a time period or particular mapmaker. An increasing number of collectors who lack display space are concentrating on the field of miniature maps where decorative items may be obtained for as little as 10% of the cost of their folio counterparts.

Other enthusiasts may look for magnificent maps of less popular areas such as France, India, Russia, much of South America, North Africa etc, where again a map from a famous maker such as Blaeu or Ortelius may cost less than one fifth of a similar item from high demand areas such as North America, Malta, Cyprus, West Indies, Singapore, Japan or China.

As a general rule it is worth buying the oldest map in the best condition that one can afford. These are the maps that are likely to be least obtainable in the future.

6. What about condition?

Antique maps are paper items and therefore subject to wear and tear similar to any item which was intended to be used. Nearly all of them come from atlases which may have been roughly handled - indeed sea charts may have travelled many times around the world - and inevitably may have marginal tears or repairs to them. There is no standard way of classifying condition the way that coins are, but most dealers will describe any major defects.

Minor defects include marginal tears, slight brown spotting from paper aging, shadowing where ink is transferred across a folded map and slight creasing of the paper. Do not confuse the centrefold in most maps with creasing. Many larger maps were intended to be folded into atlases.

Major defects include tears which enter the printed surface, actual loss of printed surface, defacing by writing on the map surface and severe browning on poorer paper.

Major defects in a more common map from the 1800’s may make that map totally undesirable, but rarer, older maps may only be obtainable in a degraded condition. Either way the condition will be reflected in the price that the collector pays.

Buy a map in the best condition that you could reasonably expect for its age and price. The rarer and older it is, the more forgiving you should be about condition.

7. What should I pay?

Obviously one would like to pay as little as possible, but the easiest way to assess value is to check out the stock of as many dealers as possible and arrive at what appears to be a fair value.

The nearest thing to a price guide is the bi-annual  publication of ‘Antique Map Price Record’ by Kimmel Publications of Amherst, Massachusetts.

We publish a sample stocklist in this website and invite comparison with other dealers.

Please e-mail us for quotes, but please be sure to be specific about your interests - we have too many maps to quote all of them and we do not publish a catalog.

8. Where else can I can read about antique maps?

There are two excellent all-round books which may, or may not, be in print at present:

Antique Maps: A collector’s handbook - Moreland C. & Bannister D.

Country Life Book of Antique Maps - Potter J. (  $25US + shipping)

The most famous of all general books is R.V. Tooley’s ‘Maps and Mapmakers’ which has gone through many editions since 1945. Tooley’s ‘Dictionary of Mapmakers’ is a useful supplement.

There are many books limited to maps of certain areas and the North American continent is particularly well represented with coffee table items like ‘The Mapping of North America’ by John Goss and ‘Cartography of North America 1500 - 1800’ by Portinaro and Knirsch, or more academic approaches like ‘The Mapping of America’ by Schwartz and Ehrenberg.

Those who collect miniatures now have a reference of their own with the publication of ‘Miniature Antique Maps’ by Geoffrey King  (Second Edition 2003 )

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