Antique Maps: Roads to the Past
Antique maps are a connection between the past and present. These often striking collectibles show how the world was or was perceived decades and even centuries ago. Roads long since overgrown, countries long since swallowed by neighbors, tiny villages now sprawling metropolises, antique maps give us a glimpse into yesterday.
What is an antique map?
To be considered antique, a map must have been printed more than 100 years ago by one of three main processes.
The earliest maps were generally printed from a wooden block that 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 (circa 1550), among others. Most of these maps were not colored.
1647 Blaeu map
(If you’d like more information about any of the pictured items, click on the image.)
Copper and steel engravings form the vast majority of antique maps found today. Here, the image was cut, in reverse, into the metal plate, which was then inked, placed with a sheet of paper in a press. The ink in the grooves would produce the image.
Copper, a softer metal, in common use from the early 1500s until about 1820, would produce relatively few maps before having to be beaten out and re-engraved. Steel was introduced in the early 1800s 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 1800s 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 that does not endear them to many. This method can be used with several colors (each color needs a separate stone) but can result in overlapping of colors in some of the poorer efforts.
1882 Mitchell map of Asia
Antique map of Strait of Magellan
By the late 1880s, modern machine lithography and printing were taking over, and maps lost their decorative quality.
Condition of antique maps
Descriptions of antique maps’ condition found in catalogs are about as subjective as it can get. One dealer’s “excellent” might be another dealer’s “good.” A description can do a lot to convey information about condition, but across a range of catalogs, comparability has yet to be achieved. Some dealers omit condition statements entirely, presumably on the assumption that their reputation is sufficient—and often it is—especially with a return guarantee. Of necessity, auction catalogs generally have more extended descriptions of condition since misinformation can invalidate a sale.
Antique maps are paper items that are subject to wear and tear similar to any item that was intended to be used. Nearly all come from atlases, which may have been roughly handled, indeed. Sea charts may have traveled many times around the world—and inevitably may have marginal tears or repairs to them. Below is a classification guide to grade condition. 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 centerfold in most maps with creasing. Many larger maps were intended to be folded into atlases.
Rare 1740 map of Jerusalem
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 are more common in maps from the 1800s and earlier, which could make that map totally undesirable. 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.
Art Source International adopted the following condition codes from “The Antique Map Price Record & Handbook 1998.” Included here are a letter grade and a short descriptive statement.
Antique military map of northern France
1769 Clouet world map
(A+) Excellent condition
Clean and bright with crisp engraved lines. On sound paper with wide margins. Fine quality coloring.
(A) Very good condition
Clean and bright with crisp engraved lines. On sound paper with no imperfections in the image. Small tears or minor discoloration in the margin only. Very good quality coloring.
(B) Good condition
No significant imperfections. Minor spotting, foxing, short separations on centerfold with no image loss or overall age toning may be present. May have narrow margins, but paper is still sound. Good coloring.
(C) Fair Condition
Noticeable imperfections. Scattered foxing or spotting. Long separations on centerfold or tears entering image that can be easily repaired. Color may be slightly faded.
1755 Colonial America map
(D) Poor Condition
Needs significant repair and cleaning. Paper may be highly acid and brittle. Color may be faded.
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 percent 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.
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