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A Guide to the Past: Collecting Cartography

Rare and historical maps offer the chance to see how the world was perceived when technology was limited and parts of the globe were yet to be discovered. But how in demand are these parchments – and what are collectors looking for?

The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus found fame and fortune through his tales and records of globetrotting – most notably ‘discovering America’. He may have found new lands, people and cultures, and navigated treacherous seas aboard Spanish ships, but it wasn’t all plain sailing.

Columbus used the Henricus Martellus Germanus map, regarded as the first attempt at a map of the world, but which proved somewhat inaccurate when it informed Columbus that he had reached Japan, when he had actually arrived in the Bahamas.

Naturally, geographical guides have since developed, and their latitudes and longitudes are a source of great fascination for collectors and antiquarians. In Mayfair alone, there are a number of specialists dealing in rare and antiquated maps, including Daniel Crouch Rare Books on Bury Street and Sotheran’s on Sackville Street.

Richard Shepherd of the Sotheran’s print department confirms that map enthusiasts are growing in number. “They are one of the most popular subjects we sell at the moment,” he explains. “Especially large early maps of London. It’s fascinating to see how the city has grown and developed over the years, and this is best observed by looking at old maps and seeing what has been added, such as bridges and name changes.”

What do collectors usually look for? “People often have something specific in mind, but obviously we don’t always have what they’re looking for,” Shepherd says. “Occasionally, other areas of interest become apparent and then the customer ends up buying something that they didn’t originally think they wanted.”

Miles Baynton-Williams at Altea Gallery on St George Street finds customers frequently looking for pictorial plots of Notting Hill. “Very little was published focusing on this small area of London, so we have to show them a map of London from the 1820s that uses the district’s original name – Kensington Gravel Pits,” he explains. “I always joke that it would not be a good name for a rom-com.”

There’s always an element of the unknown when buying a map. With only a finite number available to buyers, stumbling across something else that interests them or piques their interest is all part of the enjoyment. And the customer base is changing, too. Shepherd notes: “Most of our customers are English, but since the recent fall in the pound we’re beginning to see more overseas buyers – particularly from America.”

In 2015, the Martellus map was subjected to multispectral imaging – a form of electromagnetic analysis – at Yale University, allowing researchers to uncover information that Columbus would have been presented with on the document. Twelve frequencies of light were used to expose faded notes, drawings and annotations otherwise hidden to the naked eye.

Unsurprisingly, these ancient maps are of great interest to researchers and museums, but there’s also a marked desire among a younger generation of private collectors, as Pierre-Yves Guillemet, specialist at Shapero Rare Books, explains. “Today, there are many contemporary artists creating modern maps,” he says. “Such works attract a lot of attention, particularly from a younger audience, which indicates that the interest in cartography remains strong.

“We recently had a show of contemporary porcelain globes created by the artist Loraine Rutt, organised in conjunction with London Craft Week, and it was a total success.”

Prices range wildly. At Altea Gallery, some historical maps are priced at less than £100, although the majority are under £1,000. Its most expensive piece at the moment is a 1513 map depicting America two decades after Columbus arrived, for £90,000.

In 2011, a collection of 106 maps, including the first of Australia, were auctioned for £35,000. One map dated from the 1500s, preceding Captain James Cook’s arrival on the continent by 200 years. Another, from 1753, depicted Australia without the east coast, allowing Cook to sail in 20 years later and almost ‘fill in the gaps’.

Earlier this year, a wall map of Southeast Asia and Australia by leading 16th-century atlas publisher Willem Janszoon Blaeu was sold at Sotheby’s for £248,750. For cartographers and those simply wanting to glimpse into the past, it would seem that the industry is alive and well. Who needs a treasure map when the maps themselves are the prize?

Map Trap

Cartography is a competitive industry: not something you would necessarily expect when imagining illustrators hunched over parchment with a magnifying glass in a quiet study. In order to avoid copyright infringement, some publishers input ‘trap streets’ into editions to ensnare potential violators.

These red herrings (which are even included in Google Earth imaging) can take the form of fictitious side roads, or existing roads with bends added so as not to muddy navigation too much for the user. Any map published afterwards with the trap street included acts as evidence that the cartographer has published illegal replicas. 

An Inkling

Are you a fan of dusty parchment and Victorian explorers? Ink Fair London, the international antiquarian book and art fair, returns to Embankment this autumn. There will be 38 European and American dealers of rare books, artworks and manuscripts showcasing their wares – as well as a champagne reception from 5pm on 25 October.

26-27 October, Two Temple Place, WC2R, inkfair.london

Mistaken Identity

In 1611, cartographer and historian John Speed published a new atlas based on the first maps of English counties. When Wiltshire was being drawn an unnamed village (actually Burcombe) was found, so the draftsman drew a line and wrote the word ‘Quaere’ (Latin for query) as a note to find the right information later.

However it was forgotten, and the engraver dutifully added the note onto the printing plate, where the village of ‘Quaere’ remained, to be copied by other mapmakers, for nearly 150 years.

Like the back of your hand

The National Archives has plenty of rare and historical maps, but there is one that stands out from the rest. A leather glove has a map of London landmarks painted on to it, designed to help ladies find their way to and from the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851. 

Daniel Crouch Rare Books, 4 Bury Street, St. James's, SW1Y 6AB; Henry Sotheran Ltd, 2-5 Sackville Street, Mayfair, W1S 3DP; Peter Harrington, 43 Dover Street, Mayfair, W1S 4FF; Shapero Rare Books, 32 St George Street, Mayfair, W1S 2EA,