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Collecting Antique Maps: Starting a Collection

What is an Antique Map?

Antique map of the world by Blaeu Antique map of the world by Blaeu
(ref: 11195)

Firstly it is important to establish exactly what we mean by the word "Antique". This word has been much misconstrued in recent years and its meaning has been obscured and made interchangeable with such diaphanous terms as "vintage" and "collectable". In a strict and traditional sense "Antique" refers to items that are more than a hundred years old.

At Altea the large bulk of our stock will have been printed between about 1472 and 1860. This period opens with the first known use of printing to reproduce a map (Isidore's TO map of the World of 1472), continues through the age of atlases as luxury goods for rich connoisseurs, and ends when leaps in printing technology allowed maps to be cheap enough for the mass-market.

However the date 1860 is by no means finite, since the age of exploration was still progressing with new discoveries in Africa, Australasia and North America meaning that maps continued to be updated throughout the 19th century, amongst which are many notable and collectable examples.

Antique map of Britain by Ortelius Antique map of Britain by Ortelius
(ref: 11577)

How were maps sold and to whom?

Maps were sold in two forms: as a single sheet (broadsheet) or bound in an atlas or book. The majority of antique maps on the market come from books since due to the protection of the covers they are in better condition and had a longer life expectancy as compared to a loose sheet which would have probably been bought for use and so therefore would suffer more damage and would be likely to be thrown away when obsolete.

Wall maps also suffered due to their size and treatment, since they firstly are unwieldy to handle and secondly were frequently varnished and displayed on a wall, which left them open to the depredations of sunlight which fades colour and weakens and cracks paper, and of the varnish which darkens and cracks also damaging the paper.

Antique Map of America by Ortelius Antique Map of America by Ortelius
(ref: 9267)

An atlas was considered a luxury item and was only available to the very rich who wished to display both their wealth and knowledge through their acquisitions. Johannes Blaeu's twelve-volume, 600 map "Atlas Maior" (1662) was the most expensive publication of the 17th century and was given as a diplomatic gift from the Dutch Republic to the Turkish Sultan and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold III. Naturally such prized objects were treated with care and safely shelved in the libraries of aristocrats and universities where they would be safe from the rigours of time, nature, sunlight and over-handling.

Latterly, single sheet maps were commonly dissected and mounted on linen as a way of protecting the folds in the paper from becoming weak and breaking due to repeated folding and unfolding and also often issued with an accompanying protective slipcase.

What should I collect?

Antique map of  London by Braun & Hogenberg Antique map of London by Braun & Hogenberg (ref:7360)

Most map collectors start by buying something to fill wall space and then as their knowledge grows, move onto collecting in earnest. So the best advice is to pick something that appeals to you both visually in terms of its aesthetics and personally, for example a special place you have visited or a map of an area you are interested in. From this starting point you can gradually build your knowledge about the cartographers, cartography and craftsmen involved in its production.

Antique Curiosity Map of Europe Antique Curiosity Map of Europe
(ref: 12497)

If your appetite has been whetted by this initial foray into the map world then you can perhaps begin to think about what kind of collection you wish to build up. There are many approaches and criteria you can use to help you build your collection. You may decide to collect only one region and follow it through history charting its development, or you could collect maps of one particular period, type (i.e. Sea charts) or cartographer. For example you may want to focus entirely on the much sought-after English County maps of John Speed, which have an attractive mixture of pictorial and geographical elements or those of John Ogilby, whose strip road maps of Britain were the first printed road maps of any country in Europe.

Antique map of Australia by Cassini Antique map of Australia by Cassini
(ref: 7378)

Other rewarding areas of study are early geological maps, celestial maps, sea charts and miniature maps. In relation to the latter, recently interest has risen as collectors have realised the rarity of some of these items.

Cartographical curiosities are another area that is sought after by collectors, good examples of these are the 19th century satirical maps of Europe with the countries presented in human or animal form, the famous "Leo Belgicus", or maps of imaginary locations such as Utopia.

The collector might also want to consider the theme of cartographical misconceptions the most famous of which is California as an island, a mistake that continued to be perpetuated from 1622 right up until the start of the 19th century. Also noteworthy are maps of the mythical island of Taprobana and the land of "Yedso" or "Jesso" which lay off the North coast of Japan and fluctuated in size and position through different publications and years.

The subject is so wide that any would-be-collector has almost endless possibilities to find his own little niche within the field, and thereby build a rewarding study collection.

How do I begin?

As you will probably appreciate there is an enormous amount to be learnt about antique maps, which can seem quite daunting at the start. But by far the best way of getting acquainted with the field is by visiting us and looking through our extensive stock as there is no substitute for seeing and handling the real thing! By doing this you can get a feel for the range of items on offer, the prices they sell for and the range of styles and historical periods commonly represented. We are always on hand to answer questions about the maps we stock, or any cartographical queries you may have.


Antique print of the constellations of Draco and Ursa Minor Antique Celestial Map by Leigh
(ref: 12186)

Our aim is to make available for our clients, the finest possible selection of antique maps and price them in a fair and reasonable manner.

Pricing is based on a number of different factors, the most important of which is the area shown. In any series of maps the most valuable are always the World Map and the America/North America, the World because it is usually the most decorative and America because it has the strongest regional market. The same goes for other parts of the world that have strong regional markets such as Scandinavia, Greece and Cyprus.

Other factors that come into play are rarity, age, size, historical importance, decorative value and overall condition and quality of paper it is printed on.

The concluding factor is of course the individual dealer's valuation of the map, which can vary quite considerably. Two dealers may look at the same map and come up with completely disparate prices, neither is right nor wrong, it is simply a matter of opinion based on their particular market.

Reference books

Antique Sea Chart of Cornwall by De Hooghe Antique Sea Chart of Cornwall by De Hooghe (ref: 12606)

There are a large number of reference books on the market suitable for both the novice and more seasoned collector, of which we stock a selection.

Many of these were written by fellow collectors who found that their knowledge surpassed existing reference books, so decided to compile their own.

Naturally the study of books about maps can never replace the study and handling of the maps themselves, but here at Altea Gallery you can do both simultaneously if you wish!

Special requirements for framing antique maps.

Firstly and most importantly, use archival and acid free material only.

When mounting, maps should be tipped or hinged to the mount using a water reversible archival mounting tape. A map should never be glued, heat mounted, pressure mounted or taped flat to the backing board.


We offer a framing service with reputable local framers, and carry a selection of frame and mount samples to facilitate your choice.

Storing antique maps

If your wall space has run out, then it is important to know how to safely store your maps. The cardinal rule in this respect is to avoid any extremes i.e. humidity, heat, cold, sunlight which will fade colours and degrade paper. You might also consider encapsulating your maps in mylar sleeves which will greatly reduce the wear and tear of handling. We can supply specialist cases and mylar products for your needs.