‘Sea atlases are essentially maps of bodies of water and their adjacent coastlines,’ explains Christie’s Books and Manuscripts specialist Julian Wilson. ‘They are derived from portolan charts, which were invented in the 13th century and criss-crossed with rhumb lines, used by sailors to navigate the seas and oceans between ports while avoiding navigational hazards.’
The Mopelia Collection of Fine Atlases and Travel Books, which was being sold on 5 June at Christie’s in London, contains more than 200 atlases and travel books, among them some of the finest and rarest sea atlases known to exist.
‘The collection, which has been assembled over three decades by a single owner with a love of sailing, spans everything from some of the earliest 16th-century sea maps to show the coast of the New World, to Polar-water exploration charts,’ Wilson explains. Here, the specialist selects his three favourite sea atlases from the sale.
The Dutch Golden Age of cartography produced some of the most accurate and beautifully engraved maps ever undertaken. It is represented in the sale by an edition of Johannes van Keulen’s Groote Nieuwe Vermeerderde Zee-Atlas ofte Water-Werelt. Published in 1688, it has been hand-coloured throughout, and each map as well as the frontispiece has been heightened with gold. ‘This is arguably the most important 17th-century Dutch sea atlas there is,’ says Wilson.
The map’s baroque artistry and technical achievement led to it being steadily published for over half a century from 1680 until 1734, although it was constantly updated with revised and additional pages. Whereas the first edition had just 36 charts, this tome from eight years later contains a staggering 135.
‘Beginning with a celestial map, this atlas then covers everywhere a contemporary sailor might want to visit, from the Mediterranean to the West Indies, America’s east coast, India and the South Pacific,’ Wilson explains.
Some of the maps in the sale come with remarkable provenance. The collection includes a copy of Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s Flambeau de la Navigation that was published in Amsterdam in 1620 and was once owned by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, the French antiquarian and astronomer who counted Galileo, Pierre Gassendi and Tomasso Campanella among his circle, and who began mapping the surface of the moon before he died in 1637. ‘In fact, the red morocco binding on this atlas was Peiresc’s specification,’ says Wilson.
‘Later, it found its way into the library of the French navigator Louis de Freycinet, who circumnavigated the Earth and became the first person to publish a map detailing the full coastline of Australia,’ he adds.
Many of the books in the sale relate to French voyages of exploration and discovery, including the above Le Neptune François, ou Atlas Nouveau des Cartes Marines, which was published towards the end of the 17th century. ‘It is a magnificent work that was intended more as a showpiece, rather than for navigating the seas,’ Wilson remarks.
‘This version is complete with the extremely rare first issue of Romeyn De Hooghe’s monumental map of the Mediterranean. It is printed over three sheets, coloured by a contemporary hand, and is surrounded by beautifully engraved views of all the major ports and harbours.’ These include Lisbon, Marseille, Genoa, Naples, Venice and Constantinople.