Old maps provide a world of options to serious collectors


October 11, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Thinking of exploring a new world of collecting? The 500th anniversary of Columbus' journey has propelled antique maps and atlases to the top of the charts, and it's clear that some folks will pursue cartographic treasures to the ends of the earth. Helping novices and old salts navigate the sometimes murky waters of map collecting are a flood of new exhibitions and a raft of new books.

No longer the province of a few scholarly barons, maps are being discovered by a broad population, as evidenced by thicker dealers' catalogs, higher-than-estimated auction prices, and map specialists' appearances at prestigious antiques shows. The trade's winds are so strong dealers are complaining new inventory costs more than they've been paid for what's sailing out the door.

A turning point in map collecting's renaissance was Sotheby's June 1991 New York auction dispersing the landmark Howard E. Welsh Collection of Cartography. A copy of "Map of the British and French Dominions in North America," made by John Mitchell in 1755, at the start of the French and Indian War, sold for $45,100 against a $12,000 to $18,000 pre-sale estimate. Another copy was used in determining boundaries for the 1783 Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution. Mitchell's map is considered the apogee of American cartography because of its large size, accuracy, historical importance, inscriptions and the Londoner's partisanship in presenting Britain's control over regions France also claimed. Also at Sotheby's, a rare circa 1550 map of the world by Antonio Salamanca, engraved in Rome, fetched $58,300, surpassing another $12,000 to $18,000 estimate.

Cartography prices, like the maps themselves, are a matter of perspective. "The tremendous prices paid at Sotheby's in June 1991 now seem reasonable," says New York dealer Richard Arkway who will be exhibiting rare maps at the posh International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory in Manhattan from Oct. 24-29. It's the first time maps are included in that show, although the Old Print Shop in New York has sold them for a generation at the illustrious New York Winter Antiques Show, as has W. Graham Arader III since the mid-1970s.

"I've been hoarding early atlases and maps in original color for 22 years," said Mr. Arader, generally the major map buyer at big auctions, whose galleries in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York and Philadelphia overflow with rare examples including three copies of John Mitchell's map: "Take your pick for $45,000," he boasted. "Old maps are not cheap, but they're still undervalued compared to other artifacts from their period, said Mr. Arader, a 1973 Yale graduate who claims he sold $80,000 worth of maps from his dorm room during his senior year.

Original color counts

Mr. Arader says he spent $800,000 buying 80 percent of the maps and atlases Sotheby's offered in one London auction last year: "I buy any map that is historically important and aesthetically appealing, in good condition, rare, and has a good provenance and original color."

There's a thriving industry of adding new color to old maps and prints, often confusing inexperienced collectors. If you see a map you want simply for decorative appeal, new color might not be a problem if it's priced correctly: Many dealers give written guarantees of authenticity on request. However, connoisseurs want old color or no color at all. "Adding new color to maps is a sacrilege," Mr. Arader said.

Mr. Arader credits one of his wholesale customers, Eric Thom, with heating up the map market. A former commodities trader, Mr. Thom, 36, runs Historical Properties in Beverly Hills, purveyors of pricey sports, Hollywood, and rock and roll memorabilia, and presidential manuscripts. Maps constitute 30 to 40 percent of his business, which is conducted primarily through targeted mailings and telemarketing. "The power of the phone has exposed maps to a brand new market," claims Mr. Thom, who has no problem breaking apart an old atlas to sell its maps individually, a practice anathema to rare book dealers. He's offering 111 maps from a 16th century Mercator atlas made for the Austrian royal family. "Few can afford $150,000 to shelve an atlas, but there are plenty of people who'll pay from $3,000 to $15,000 for a Mercator map in original color with its full margins," he says.

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