By: Dan Hofstadter
If you wander around shops in a city like New York, looking at old maps for their beauty alone in the company of dealers like Harry Newman at The Old Print Shop; or Paul Cohen and Henry Tagliaferro at Arkway; or Graham Arader of Arader Galleries; or Richard Lan, Robert Augustyn and James Roy at Martayan Lan, you could be forgiven for forgetting something important. What you might forget is that neither dealers nor auction houses evaluate maps primarily on the basis of looks. Of course, they are not indifferent to looks—far from it. But appearance is not the primary determinant of value.
The experts tell us that modern Western cartography has in large measure steered a course toward the purely cognitive, and what tends to determine the value of antiquarian maps is precedence in conveying accurate geographical information. Leon Battista Alberti, the great Renaissance architect, might be the most fascinating example of this craving for the factual. Around 1440 Alberti made a map of Rome,Descriptio urbis Romae, which is one of his most amazing mental achievements. Because he was so afraid of sloppy copyists, he decided to reduce map-making to what today’s students of cartography call “information primitives,” that is, the brute facts of what’s being communicated.
Typically for his period, Alberti conceived of cities as pie-shaped settlements—disks studded with houses—so he drew a circle around the city and put a point in the center. Then, using advanced surveying equipment, he went out and measured the distance from this point to all other points of interest and tabulated these figures. That was his “map”: columns of numbers, a digital file. To create a usable town-plan, the purchaser of Alberti’s map was supplied with a calibrated wheel and a stylus that operated on Alberti’s algorithm and could be made to plot the hard copy on paper.
A perceptible tension pervades many European maps until the 18th century. The ragged, often squiggly shapes of landmasses were a sort of irritant for Renaissance and Baroque thought. So much that was apparently formless violated the conception of the world as a divine, harmoniously ordered system, a cosmos. Cartography, by tackling such endless irregularity, was the antithesis of architecture, which tried to create constructions—indeed, whole cities, as in Pope Sixtus V’s redesign of Rome in the 1580s—of pure rationality. The early cartographers responded to this challenge by printing maps that, even though forced to show nongeometric shapes of no intrinsic proportionality, often added ancillary beauty of their own, through mathematical projection systems, decorative hand-lettering, cartouches, side-panels and vignettes.
In addition, these maps’ transmission of knowledge is almost always accompanied by an assertion of the value of aristocratic or bourgeois leisure, in the form of aesthetic entertainment. Educational side-panels of exotic figures in their native costume abound, swarming with particular splendor around early 17th-century maps of Africa. These pieces, well known to dealers, were published by Johannes Blaeu, Jodocus Hondius, John Speed, Mozzi Scolari and Hugo Allard, among others. Superb draftsmen were often employed. The wall map L’Afrique (1696–98), by the prolific Nicolas de Fer, is geographically weak for its date, but it has many magnificent vignettes engraved by a certain Nicolas Guérard; J.B. Nolin’s Globe Terrestre (1700) has especially well-executed side-panel engravings on sacred motifs by Jean-François Bocquet, an artist who has otherwise fallen into obscurity.
The hunger for scientific knowledge began to be realized around 1690 by the French Academy of Sciences, under the direction of Jean-Dominique Cassini. Yet even cartographers aiming to print solely the “information primitives,” the hard facts, found themselves confronted by decisions made in the interest of clarity or practicality that enlisted their aesthetic sensibilities. How densely could place-names be strewn on a map before it grew garrulous and illegible? How could a hierarchy of geographical importance be translated into a system of signs? Many such questions had to be answered, and with an unforced sense of style. In the Carte géometrique de la France, or Carte Cassini, as it came to be known, you can watch a new kind of beauty replacing the old: What counts now is scientific accuracy plus the clean transmission of fact, and the two combined have the elegance of a neat geometric proof.
Still, neither map dealers nor historians tend to regard maps primarily as aesthetic objects. They must keep an eye on more important features of old maps, such as those geographical “firsts” that are so important in the evolution of cartography, and, of course, sheer rarity. No doubt that is as it should be, and also, because maps describe the world, sheer quantity reigns in map collecting. If any sort of collector can be said to be a relentless, driven hunter- gatherer it is the collector of old maps. Major Americans in the field, such as David Rumsey in San Francisco or Barry MacLean in Chicago, possess tens of thousands of pieces yet are always in search of more.
The acquisitiveness of the modern map collector harks back that of the 16th- or 17th-century buyer, who had to pay a small fortune for a leather-bound atlas on heavyweight gilt-edged paper. Such a volume was a luxury item that might fetch a sum equal to the yearly rent of a major bookshop. If you walk through the splendid Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican, commissioned in 1580, with its seemingly endless mural maps of the Papal States designed by Egnazio Danti, you sense the map collector’s desire to master vast territories, and indeed much has been written recently about how maps arrogantly miniaturize the world, forming a metaphor for the West’s imperial ambitions: The viewer, we are told, looks down on the earth with “majestic vertigo.” But that is only half the story.
The intense scrutiny of any world map from the period 1500–1800 is actually a humbling experience, reminding you of the sheer multiplicity of territories and peoples occupying the globe. Many maps are strewn with tiny illustrational vignettes, in profile rather than in plan, so that you may look head-on for hours at things like Malay fishing expeditions or Chinese wind-powered automobiles (as in the Mercator-Hondius atlas of 1610), and the sudden shifts in perspective and scale put you there, so to speak, drastically shrinking you, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice.
Of course, maps are intended to orient the viewer. But they can also disorient, sometimes willfully. As complex graphic pieces, they can seduce you into living a kind of tale, a music of shifting keys extending through many weathers. The sensuality of so much leisurely contemplation forms a counterpoint to the transmission of fact. The cartouche—the decorative frame that encloses the map’s title and maker along with ancillary information—is often encrusted with superb figurative work, much of which not only exalts the non-Western world, offering prototypes of noble savages and Oriental princes, but also weaves together a tumbling, prodigal, dreamlike imagery that at times foreshadows the poetics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Gérard de Nerval. Maps may offer less an illusion of control than an affirmation of abundance, of profusion, of the world as infinite voyage.
In this country, map collecting began as a sub-department of the interest in Americana. By 1945 many of the collections formed by wealthy industrialists and merchants had ended up in libraries open to the public. Since then, at least 43 major collections have found institutional homes, according to Robert Karrow, curator of special collections at the Newberry Library, the greatest map repository in the United States, located in Chicago, a city that has some claim to being the map capital of the country. In addition to long-established sources such as The Old Print Shop in New York—a fascinating emporium acquired by Harry Shaw Newman in 1927 and still going strong—and the various book fairs in New York, London and Paris, several new dealers came to exert an enormous influence on collection-building. Notable among these were the authoritative Ken Nebenzahl, who opened in his shop in Chicago in 1957, and Graham Arader, a ruthless presence in the auction market, much admired and much criticized for his business drive, who opened his gallery in Philadelphia in 1972.
Arader revolutionized the antiquarian map market, helping to stabilize the criteria by which old maps are evaluated and to cause prices to rise rapidly. “Four things make a map valuable,” Arader says, “usually in this order: First, historical importance—information being communicated accurately for the first time. Second, aesthetics—decorative motifs, balance, original color. Third, condition. Fourth, rarity—though who cares about rarity if it doesn’t meet the other criteria? And every collector should inquire aggressively about these four things.” As for prices of antiquarian maps, it is commonly asserted that they have climbed disproportionately in recent decades, but Karrow is inclined to dispute this. In a study soon to be published, he has compared the consumer price index for all items from 1900–99 with 25 copies of Abraham Ortelius’ Map of America offered for sale during the same period; the graph of the rising CPI plotted together with that of the map sales reveals no striking divergence. Actual map prices “ranged from $2.50 in 1909,” he says, “to $9,750 in 1994.”
Roy at Martayan Lan urges buyers to beware of the way maps look online. With the naked eye, he says, “experts can detect even very good restoration,” and the advantage of a good dealer is that he or she has “already absorbed the risk.” With reference to the kind of collector they are happiest working with, the one word most often heard on the lips of dealers and auction people is “focus.” This doesn’t necessarily involve commanding huge sums of money, but it does imply advance study of the world of antiquarian maps and a commitment to a particular geographic region of which the collector has some longstanding knowledge before he or she starts buying. Some areas—Virginia and Texas, for example—have been heavily picked over. “Canada is largely an open field,” says Cohen, and other dealers tend to agree. “It’s odd, because Canada’s very interesting historically; you have all that early exploration, you have the French and Indian War, and yet, for some reason, there’s not much interest. I’ve no idea why, except perhaps that there are some fine existing collections and the supply is strong relative to demand.”
Among the most remarkable American collectors is Seymour Schwartz, a distinguished surgeon at the University of Rochester, who started out many decades ago and bought very selectively, often from Nebenzahl and Arader. Schwartz, who took up collecting because his wife, Ruth, felt that he needed a hobby, has concentrated on North America before 1800; he has also written on the mapping of America. He recently donated his collection to the Albert Small Library of the University of Virginia.
Rumsey, who originally trained to become a sculptor but instead went on to make a fortune in real estate in the San Francisco area, has assembled more than 150,000 maps; last February he announced that they will go to Stanford University. His collection, like Schwartz’s, is devoted to North America, with some emphasis on the Western states. Most astonishingly, he has digitized more than 17,000 of his maps. Rumsey, in fact, is something of a computer wizard and has collaborated with Google Maps to set up a system of chronological layers whereby anyone with access to the Internet can navigate across time and space by viewing digitized antiquarian maps of selected points on the globe. In this way it is possible to rapidly watch the growth of an entire city or network of roads.
Another collector of mind-boggling reach is Roger Baskes, chairman of the board of trustees of the Newberry Library and active in many map societies. In his purchasing Baskes takes careful note of what the Newberry already possesses, since his collection, consisting largely of atlases and travel guides, is earmarked for that institution. To date, his collection comprises more than 15,000 atlases and more than half a million maps.
Perhaps the most fairy-tale-like of the big American collections, however, is that of Barry MacLean, who unites in one person the love of accurate information and the love of beauty, perhaps because they are subsumed under a truly voracious drive to accumulate, a drive that MacLean himself acknowledges with a helpless smile. A sturdily built, expansive man in late middle age, with wide-ranging intellectual and aesthetic interests, MacLean is an engineer and the president of MacLean-Fogg, a company based in Mudelein, Ill., with annual sales of nearly $800 million. Since 1925 it has been manufacturing high-performance insulators and fasteners for a wide variety of vehicles and, more recently, hardware components for telecommunications.
MacLean has concentrated on maps of the Great Lakes region but also on wall maps, including very old and rare ones, and pocket maps as well. By now he has more than 23,000 maps, of which some hang in his house north of Chicago. On one wall is a unique 1603 Hondius world map, which a garbage man in Italy had rescued from the trash and which had somehow reached Tagliaferro, the New York dealer. Many others spill all over the interior of a large bungalow in the nearby woods, where they are being studied and catalogued by Tom Hall, MacLean’s private curator; and still others are stashed at the Newberry. It is probably not unfair to say that by now MacLean, who is also a major collector of Asian art, no longer knows what he has, but he will soon open a library-cum-exhibition space in a building he owns, which will organize and present the material.
MacLean got interested in maps as a child. “On car trips to our family summer house in Wisconsin,” he recalls, “my dad thought I talked too much, and he offered me a nickel for every hour I could keep my mouth shut. So at filling stations I would pick up promotional road maps, which were free in those days, and examine them in silence, thinking of all the places I might travel one day.” Over the years MacLean has acquired maps of the Great Lakes and the Middle West in general, “including road maps for immigrants, printed in foreign languages, and the very first maps revealing interest in settling northern Illinois after John Deere had invented a plow that could turn over the prairie sod.” It’s clear that his childhood fascination with the map-as-storyteller has never left him.
Indeed, one of the satisfactions of looking at a cohesive group of maps of one area is to note how a zone of relative blankness may begin, so to speak, to draw itself. Place-names, as they thicken, bloom into a sort of furze-like stippling; county lines form a fine-spun gossamer lacework; certain colors dominate and fade and are gradually replaced by others. And so it is that the old Renaissance problem, how the raggedness of landmasses can be given some meaningful form, seems to be resolved by the accuracy of modern surveying, the search for descriptive truth and the very pattern of settlement.
Swann Auction Galleries, New York
Maps & Atlases
Bloomsbury Auctions, New York
The De Orbe Novo Collection:
Exploration in the New World 1495-1623
Bonhams, New York
Inaugural Map & Cartography Sale
Arader Galleries aradergalleries.com
Arkway, New York 232.751.8135 arkway.com
Martayan Lan, New York
Shapero Gallery, London
The Old Print Shop, New York