Collecting Old Maps
By Joseph R. Rubini
"Old maps have a double charm, visual and historical. They embrace the whole world and every nation. They are pictorial history presented with the greatest economy of space."
--R.V. Tooley, Maps and Map-makers, 1972
The display of maps seen in this exhibition may have stirred your interest in becoming a map collector. Perhaps you wonder where to obtain a striking map of Florida from its early days of statehood. Maybe you recently saw a map of South America that looked old but you hesitated about purchasing it. Interest in old maps is increasing and new collectors seem to appear after every map exhibit. This brief discussion and bit of advice is from a collector who hopes to help you get started with his absorbing hobby.
The beginner has problems in locating maps for purchase, he knows little about prices, and often is uncertain about judging quality in maps. In order to best deal with these problems he should try to see and study as many maps as possible. Whenever maps are on display one can gain useful information. Florida has a network of public and university libraries, historical societies and museums that house map collections. Phone ahead to arrange for a visit. Larger antique shows often have a map dealer who is glad to show you maps and discuss prices. Antiquarian book and print sellers often keep a small stock of maps and are good sources of information. Walk into some local antique shops and you may spot a dusty, old map almost hidden from sight.
Map dealers of international repute can be found in many of our major cities (Atlanta, Washington, New York, etc.). They often issue informative catalogs. The Library of Congress houses a collection of over four and one half million maps! Visit there and you'll be enchanted.
A number of excellent illustrated books about maps and mapmakers are available. Books by Tooley and Schwartz listed in the bibliography are especially useful.
When considering a map purchase, remember that a reputable dealer is the best insurance against unwise purchases. He should permit you to return a map within a week without question. Prices depend upon a number of expected variables that include: relative rarity, area of interest, decorative appearance, condition, date issued, availability, size, historical significance and color.
Once obtained, maps may require cleaning and repair. This can be learned in time, but it is often best to leave it to the archival experts. It is better to buy a map in excellent condition. Most collectors have their maps mounted between non-acidic boards and framed to hang on the wall. Be sure to keep maps away from the damaging effects of direct sunlight.
It should be appreciated that old maps were individual impressions from carved wood blocks (until 1550) or from incised copper plate (until 1850). These limited editions were printed on paper made from rags.
Old paper is quite stable although it may brown or become spattered with fungus (foxing). More recent maps (after 1850) were mass-produced by lithographic processes on wood pulp paper that soon becomes brittle or cracked.
Designs on maps reflect the times. Sea monsters and large lettering were common on the 16th century maps. Exploring or battling ships adorned 17th century sea maps. Famous cartographers made many old maps. As you learn more about maps, you can readily recognize maps by Munster, Ortelius, Leau, Speed, DeLisle, and Moll to name just a few. American mapmakers also enjoy fame, especially Lucas, Carey, Tanner, Mitchell, Colton, Johnson and certainly others.
Early maps were often colored. Finer maps were beautifully colored by artisans or given to ladies of the court to try their hand at coloring. Some dealers today employ modern colorists to beautify old maps. Both freshly colored and contemporary colored maps are very collectible. Uncolored maps are also valuable and have their advocates.
Let's now hope that you're ready to start your collection. A little knowledge, good luck and a sharp eye all will help. Good map hunting!