Tips of the Trade
Searching Out Maps
Antique European maps are relatively inexpensive.
Collectors love some state maps more than others, which drives up their price.
Maps that show incorrect information—such as this non-existent lake—are sought after.
To Chris Lane, co-owner of The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd., a map is more than a representation of a place. In his eyes, maps are pictorial histories that might reveal when the New World was discovered, when an American city was born, or how conquerors divided a continent.
Learn how to start a collection of inexpensive maps
The good news for collectors is that these windows to the past are very affordable. Although antique maps can sell for many thousands of dollars, Chris says a collector can find beautiful maps of a good size done by well-known cartographers for under $250. We've asked Chris to tell us how a beginner might start a collection of inexpensive antique maps. Here's what he suggests.
Choosing a Place
Your first decision is to choose what area of the world you'd like to collect. Chris' advice: "I'd try to pick an area in which I'm interested and that is less desirable to most collectors. This way you can buy better maps for the same amount of money."
Collectors put down the most money for world maps and American maps, followed by maps of Southeast Asia, Australia and the Philippines, Chris explains. Interestingly enough, European maps are some of the least popular.
"I wouldn't pick maps of colonial America or exploration maps," says Chris, noting that these are some of the most expensive maps. "I'd pick maps of places that most collectors pass over, such as those of France or maybe world trade maps from the 19th century."
Some state maps, such as Texas, are more expensive than others. Says Chris: "There are lots of people who both love Texas and have a lot of money." Collectors also prize specific regions or cities. Low demand for Pennsylvania and New York state maps makes them a bargain while high demand for New York City and Philadelphia maps drives up their price.
Know the Place
Anyone who is serious about collecting maps should plan to do a little research. "Maps take a certain amount of awareness to be appreciated, so background knowledge is very important when buying antique maps," says Chris. "It gives you a context for what you're doing."
"If the map shows new discoveries, it's worth more than one that doesn't," Chris explains. Important historic changes, such as a border change or the establishment of a major city translate into important map features. A Vermont map from the mid-19th century is standard and of little value; one of Missouri from the same period is probably more valuable because it is likely to contain new information about the area.
"If you know more about the history of an area than the seller, you can often get a bargain," Chris says. Sometimes map enthusiasts will collect a series of maps from one area to trace its development.
Evaluate the Trade-Offs
You can reduce your purchase price even more once you decide what you can live without. If you care only about the history embodied by a map rather than its aesthetics, you can save money by settling for a beat-up old map, although they are hard to resell. If you don't care that a map is not an ideal size—about 16 by 20 inches—you can save money by buying a smaller or even a larger map. If you don't care about colorful flourishes, you can save money with an uncolored map.
Chris also recommends that map buyers today should not quibble about prices. Notes Chris: "You may end up losing the opportunity if you pass on a particular map." Maps are also rising dramatically in price, so even if you overpay slightly today, your map is likely to be worth more tomorrow. One of the reasons that map prices are climbing, Chris believes, is the accessibility of maps. "The Internet has made maps easier to find," Chris says. "People can get a better sense of what's out there."
If you want to collect along the cutting edge of map collecting, consider road and subway maps. "These maps now sell for five dollars but they will be worth one hundred dollars in the not-too-distant futures," Chris says.
Chris says a map buyer should always ask: Will the map last? That's an important question because maps are often mounted on acidic paper or glued on to acidic boards. "You might have to pay twice the price of the map to get it de-acidified," Chris warns.
Avoid map reproductions—those that are done photo-mechanically—as they are not collectibles, adds Chris. Last but not least, Chris recommends that all novice collectors get a written guarantee of what you are buying. That way you can return something that you later discover is not what the seller marketed, which is one more reason to keep learning about maps.
To learn more about collecting maps, see:
The Story of Maps, by Lloyd A. Brown, 1977.
Antique Maps: A Collector's Handbook, by Carl Moreland and David Bannister, 1989.
Collecting Antique Maps, by Jonathan Potter, 1999.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Books & Manuscripts category:
Tate Gallery Archive (Honolulu, 2007)
Eleanor Roosevelt Archive (Philadelphia, 2007)
Rare Portraits Survive Museum Blaze (In a Way) (Mobile, 2007)
Early Mormon History Explained (Salt Lake City, 2007)
Dakota, Lakota, Nakota: Languages of the Sioux (Bismarck, 2006)
Standing Up to the Academy (Bismarck, 2006)
Preserving Antique Books
Collecting Mistaken Maps
Sentimental Favorites, Roadshow Flops
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.