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The map collector’s apprentice, old maps

May 12th 2005 | from Intelligent Life AN OLD map is not just beautiful, but fascinating, too. Collectors like to see what their home patch used to look like—or, at least, how cartographers in past centuries saw it. Maps showing California as an island, for example, are popular with collectors on the American west coast. Broadly, collectable maps run from the introduction of woodcut printing in Europe in the 15th century to the invention of lithography in the early 19th century, ending the days of beautiful copper engravings. Compared with antique furniture or paintings, maps are a lot cheaper. Originals start at $1,000, and even the top end of the market rarely reaches six figures. For buyers in Britain, there’s an added advantage: unlike other works of art, maps are not subject to VAT (sales tax).

Tastes vary by region. Today the biggest demand is in America. Japan boomed briefly during the bubble years. Demand in continental Europe is patchy. “The one thing that remains constant is that there is no significant market for maps of France,” says David Bannister, a leading British authority on the map trade. The only exception, he says, is wine-lovers, who like maps of the places that produce their favourite tipple.

Dealers love countries where local taste is indifferent to maps. Dealers used to be able to double their money simply by buying maps, in France, of other countries and selling them in London. Eastern Europe also used to be a big source of bargain-priced old maps, many of which were looted in the Soviet era from private collections. Now rich Russians, in particular, are enthusiastic buyers of old maps of their country in London salerooms.

The trade centres on London, where European supply and American demand intersect. Here also is the expertise to distinguish a really old map from a rather later copy—and from a modern forgery. Other expertise includes spotting the date when a map was coloured: antique maps were printed in monochrome, and then usually hand-tinted to the owner’s taste.

Views differ about the acceptability of modern tinting. Some regard it as tantamount to touching up an old master to make it look better; others think that modern colourists are just as good, if not better, than the old ones. What is certain is that coloured maps tend to sell for around half as much again as uncoloured ones.

The exception is the rarest maps, which attract purist collectors. One of the best known, a wealthy American, buys only black-and-white maps. But the contours of taste in the map-loving world are good news for the average collector. Beauty does not necessarily correlate with expense. What makes maps pricey is chiefly their rarity, condition and age. So, those simply wanting something attractive and interesting as a wall decoration will find themselves spoiled for choice.

Really ambitious collectors like to buy not just maps, but whole atlases. Yet the break-up value of an atlas is usually greater than the price of the whole. To some authorities, snipping out the maps and selling them separately is an act of vandalism. The books were designed as a whole; as separate pages, their artistic integrity is reduced. But others see it differently. Michael Jennings, a British dealer based in Antibes, says “there are enough atlases in library collections for people to look at them if they want to.” Breaking atlases up spreads the enjoyment of the plates they contain, he argues.

Hovering in the background is a scandal. Rare maps in libraries are both valuable and often scandalously badly guarded. In the space of a morning, a thief with a razor blade and a baggy coat can make off with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of maps. And though dealers’ suspicions may be aroused by a wonderful map with no provenance, auction houses are less choosy.

Libraries are only gradually waking up to the idea that map-lovers wanting to inspect their rare atlases may need to be watched by CCTV and allowed to leave only when the volume is certified to be still intact. At one recent conference on map theft in Wales, a senior librarian bewailed the thefts with the words “why are they doing this to us?” as if vandalism, rather than theft, was the motive. Worst of all, some libraries are so embarrassed about thefts that they prefer not to report losses to the police or even dealers. It means that thieves can sell their loot with impunity. London’s best-known naval library is said to be a prime example.

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