A Treasure Trove In Antique Maps

Prices are way up, but you can still start collecting

For Norman Leventhal, it all began in a London bookstore. The Boston developer, now 82, stumbled into his passion for antique maps in the mid-1970s after becoming captivated by a late 1800s map of Boston that he spotted. After that purchase, Leventhal says, maps "slowly got the better of me." Indeed, he has since amassed one of the leading private collections documenting the growth of New England from the 17th century.

The world of map collecting may evoke the musty air of crumbling paper and old bookstores--and it does not match the trophy status of, say, collecting Impressionist paintings. But it's a field that lately has seen a steady rise in demand, particularly for 16th and 17th century world and early America maps. Meanwhile, the donation of private collections to institutions has shrunk the supply of old maps. As a result, prices of rare maps have been moving into uncharted waters.

Last March, for example, a 17th century atlas by celebrated Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu, comprising 11 volumes and 600 maps, went to auction at Sotheby's in London with a presale estimate of $195,000 to $260,000. It sold to a private collector for $367,490, a record for a Blaeu atlas at auction and reflecting the premium being paid for antique atlases today. Then in May, at Sotheby's in New York, British cartographer Henry Popple's 1733 Map of the British Empire in America sold for $112,500, way over the auctioneer's expectations of $35,000 to $50,000. That was followed by Lewis Evans' 1755 map of the middle British colonies in America, issued during the French and Indian Wars. The map, printed by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, was hammered down for $112,500, quadruple Sotheby's estimate.

If the surge of interest in antique cartography is making you toy with the idea of collecting maps, here's the first requirement: Make sure you are drawn by the stories they tell or by their decorative features. If you plunk down several hundred dollars for a chart, you'd better enjoy it on your wall, because antique maps don't necessarily lead to treasures. Longtime Chicago dealer Ken Nebenzahl shares that view: "It is a non-income-producing, illiquid asset. And you can't get out of a position with one call to a broker."

Map collecting requires a great deal of self-education, in history, geography, and the map market. If you want to get the lay of the land, Alice Hudson, curator of the New York Public Library's map collection, recommends Francis Manasek's Collecting Old Maps (Terra Nova Press, $65). Manasek, a dealer in Norwich, Vt., provides a primer on finding antique maps and on buying and selling them at auction or through dealers.

Valuing maps is highly idiosyncratic, says John Herbert, steward of the Library of Congress' 4.6 million maps and 60,000 atlases. Prices are based not just on a map's historic value and state of preservation but also on aesthetics and a dealer's market instincts and expertise. Leventhal recalls that when he started collecting, "it was especially difficult to know how much to pay for a map." Indeed, after he had built up his collection to about 100 maps, he asked Nebenzhal to fly to Boston to appraise and confirm the authenticity of his collection. So it's a good idea to visit reputable dealers to get a feel for the market. Check museums and universities with extensive map collections or with map societies to get suggestions on dealers to visit.

While aesthetics do figure in the value, don't discount a map just because of its plain looks. Some early maps may not be as decorative as others but may have historic importance. Meanwhile, Herbert warns that you need to be more careful when you're buying a manuscript, or hand-drawn map, than a printed one. Manuscripts are more easily forged, he says.

For new collectors, Bill Warren, president of the California Map Society, advises focusing on regions where collectors haven't bid up prices, such as South America or Africa. Cathy Slowther, cartography expert at Sotheby's in London, offers another approach: Look for maps by eminent cartographers, but of regions that aren't sought after. The world maps by Blaeu may be pricey, she says, but his renderings of France may go for less because the French don't collect maps.

While you might discover an antique map at your neighbor's garage sale, your best bet is to go to a dealer. They are likely to have a wide choice. But it's best to establish a budget first and familiarize yourself with dealers' catalogs and Web sites. Reputable dealers offer money back guarantees for a week or more after the sale, allowing buyers time to further verify their purchases. "We'll always take a map back," says Paul Cohen at New York dealer Richard B. Arkway Inc. Nowadays, antique maps can also be found via the Internet. Swaen.com, the site of a London dealer, holds auctions and also offers money-back guarantees.

Based on recent trends, one can only wonder how Blaeu's 1662 atlas will fare at Sotheby's London auction on Dec. 2. Slowther says Blaeu atlases were presented to visiting royalty as a symbol of the Netherlands. Then, on Dec. 7, an auction in New York will feature the 1482 Geographia of Ptolemy, the third and last printed, and the first with woodcut--not engraved--maps. In June, 1998, a copy in an original binding sold for $1.15 million. In Mapping Boston (MIT Press, $50), a book based on Leventhal's maps, the collector says: "To read a map is to embark on a journey of the imagination." For some, buying maps seems to sweeten that journey.

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