Cartographers are attempting the near impossible: rendering a three-dimensional sphere on a flat surface. Historically, the best map-makers had to posses a mathematician’s mind, an artist’s hand and the shrewd eye of a businessman. Those with these qualities established themselves as successful cartographic publishers, and set the benchmarks for accuracy and reliability by which maps can be judged to be important.
The golden age of cartography: Ortelius and Blaeu
There are two high points in the golden age of cartography. The first was the publication of what we would call the modern atlas by Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598). Called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, it was initially published in Antwerp in 1570 and was at the time the most expensive book ever produced. Its exorbitant price however didn’t suppress demand: around 8,225 copies were printed between 1570 and 1641, in seven different languages.
The second high point came from the father and son pair Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) and Joan Blaeu (1596-1673). Official cartographers to the Dutch East India Company, they had access to the latest charts and produced magnificent maps and atlases, culminating in their Atlas Maior.
It was published in a varying number of volumes, depending on the language and edition. Complete sets are rare on the market today, and command a high price. The example below — offered at Christie’s in London on 10 July 2019 — is a superb copy of the Dutch edition. Entitled Grooten Atlas and published in Amsterdam between 1664-1665, it comprises nine folio volumes, all hand-coloured and heightened in gold by a contemporary hand, and bound in the publisher’s gilt vellum with green silk ties.
Real rarities: the likes of Buell, Metellus and Barentsz
Map collectors are often drawn to the real rarities. Abel Buell’s A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America from 1784, for example, generated significant interest when it came up for sale at Christie’s New York in 2010. Not only was it the first map to have been printed in the newly independent United States, but it was one of only eight known copies. Selling for $2,098,500, it set a new world record for a single printed map.
The recent London sale Beyond the Horizon: the Mopelia Collection of Fine Atlases and Travel Books contained some extraordinary rarities, including Johannes Metellus’ Speculum Orbis Terrae, published near Frankfurt in 1602. A first edition of one of the rarest early world atlases by one of the modern masters of cosmography, it was read by Walter Raleigh and his contemporaries. It comprises five volumes bound together, covering Europe, Asia, Africa, Islands, and the Americas. Each of the parts is exceptionally rare on its own; to have the complete atlas is almost unheard of. Christie’s has been unable to trace another complete atlas at auction or in the trade.
The same sale also featured Willem Barentsz’s Caertboeck vande Midlandtsche Zee [Description de la Mer Mediterrannee], published in Amsterdam in 1609. An extremely rare French-language edition of the first pilot atlas of the Mediterranean with printed charts, it came complete with the very rare folding general chart of the Mediterranean, of which Christie’s has only been able to trace one other similar copy, at the Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience in Antwerp.
The Barentsz is interesting because its charts derive from the tradition of portolan atlases and charts. These were used by medieval and Renaissance sea captains to navigate, and can look very unusual to the modern eye. Since they are primarily interested in the depiction of coastlines, the early ones don’t show any landforms or give any sense of depth.
Crisscrossed by rhumb lines (lines that cross meridians of longitude at the same angle), embellished with compass roses and coast names written at right angles to the coastline, they are both beautiful and accurate. The early ones have a sparse beauty while the later renditions are highly decorated, almost in the fashion of illuminated manuscripts. The landscapes are sometimes filled with mythical beasts, fanciful hills or flags for the countries they represent.
In 2012, Christie’s set a new world record for such an atlas of manuscript maps, selling Battista Agnese’s Portolan Atlas of the World, a 16th-century maritime navigational atlas with beautiful illuminated decoration, for $2,770,500.
The appeal of the unusual, from Scotland to California
Early 15th-century printed maps based on the Greek cartographer Ptolemy have a stripped-down beauty. Some of these maps orient Scotland at a 90-degree angle from our current understanding of its placement; there’s a certain quirkiness to them that holds appeal.
Another oddity is the state of California: it was shown correctly on most maps up to the mid-17th century, but then word reached Europe that someone had successfully circumnavigated California. Map-makers scrambled to show California as an island and this notion, though soon disproved, persisted on maps for more than 100 years.
The very important pioneering geological maps, such as the above example by William Smith, are large, imposing and incredibly decorative.
The importance of provenance
Monarchs and politicians from the Renaissance period had a great thirst for knowledge of the world. As new discoveries were being made in the New World and in Asia, they wanted to explore new possibilities for trade. The British Library Collection holds what was for centuries the largest atlas ever published — the Klencke Atlas — which was made specifically for Charles II. It is 1.75 metres high and 1.90 metres wide when open, and is said to require six people to carry it.
Sometimes maps drawn by explorers themselves come to market, such as the manuscript chart of Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition (1858-1864) sold by Christie’s in 2010. Drawn by the expedition’s surveyor, Francis Skead, to record the journey and the mouths of the river, it provides a direct connection between primary surveillance and the opening up of the interior of Africa.
Affordable entry points for starting a collection
There are many types of maps out there, and not all of them cost the earth. You can probably pick up a 17th-century county map of England done by John Speed for £200-300. Geological maps of the dark side of the moon in psychedelic colour, published by NASA in the 1960s and 1970s, are trading at similar prices. Map collecting only becomes expensive when you are seeking the black tulips of cartography.
Find alternative and unexpected areas to collect
People are always finding new and wonderful maps to collect. One area that collectors are looking into at the moment is maps of the Far East. Finding printed maps of these regions that date to the 18th century is extremely difficult.
Some collectors are straying from traditional ideas of what constitutes a collectable map. In recent years the Harry Beck London Underground map executed in the 1930s has attracted a lot of attention. And what about maps of the Human Genome? Perhaps we’ll also see maps of global warming and of ozone layers come into play. There is a host of areas yet to be explored.
Visit map fairs and map dealers to find out more about atlases and maps
There’s no substitute for a great library. Maps have so many editions and issues, and can be found in so many various states, that a good reference library is a must to help navigate your way through the field. It's also worth attending the previews of Christie’s Books sales because they always have a cartographic component.
Only by physically handling maps will you gain an understanding of the papers involved, the types of binding used for atlases, and the differences between contemporary and modern colouring. Visit collections at institutions such as the British Library or the Library of Congress, map fairs, and map dealers’ shops.
Maps is one of the few collecting areas where institutions, auctioneers, academics and dealers all work very closely together; it is a warm and welcoming family and we all go to the same events such as the London Map Fair at the Royal Geographical Society, the yearly Miami International Map Fair and the biennial International Conference for the History of Cartography. If you’re starting out, get involved.