Collecting: Maps of the World

When Daniel Crouch heads to The European Fine Art and Antiques Fair in Maastricht next month, he’s taking nine lions with him. Crouch is exhibiting, among other things, a collection of beautiful Leo Belgicus (Dutch Lion) maps dating from 1583. The maps document and celebrate significant points in the history of the Low Countries, made up of modern day France, northern Belgium and part of the Netherlands, and the whole collection of maps will be on sale for €350,000, with individual lion maps starting at €20,000.

Antique maps and atlases are certainly a niche collectible, but are gaining in popularity, according to Crouch, a London-based dealer. “People tend to collect maps of places with which they have a special connection,” he says. “As people travel more, they have stronger feelings about a wider range of places around the world. Maps and atlases are by definition global, so we see buyers from all over the world too.” He says that’s why the prices of maps featuring countries with rapidly growing economies such as China, India and Brazil have increased the most in recent years.

Although building up an atlas collection is much more expensive, he adds that it the cost of buying beautiful, historically important maps is not necessarily eye watering. Prices start at under $150, and although it depends on the region or country you are collecting, it’s possible to build up a really comprehensive collection of antique maps for £20,ooo to £30,000 ($30,300 to $45,500).

“I’ve just been emailing one of the big collectors of maps of Florida and he’s probably spent a couple of million dollars on his collection, but spread out over 35 to 40 years,” says Crouch. “We encourage our collectors to specialize in a certain region. Otherwise, you could end up with a collection of maps of places where you have been that are extremely interesting, but that are only meaningful to you, so not such a great asset.”

What other tips does he have for buyers? “We recommend that people buy maps in their original color and condition, if possible, not ones that have been colored later to make them more appealing. There’s also a big difference between maps that were separately published in the first place to sheet maps that have been cut out of atlases. We just sell separately published material or whole atlases.” He says that so many atlases have been cut up for their maps that whole atlases are now rare and more valuable than the sum of the maps they contain. Without the incentive to cut up atlases, there are less individual maps around, which he says makes them increasingly sought after.

For Crouch, rarity is not important as maps and atlases that tell the story of a place. “The story of the discovery of America is a classic one, where you have maps and atlases relating to the first reports from Columbus right through to the 19th century maps about the exploration of the interior of country,” he says. “There’s a strong imperative for people to buy those because they are iconic.” In fact, the most expensive map ever sold, which fetched just under $2.1 million including the buyer’s premium at Christie’s in 2010, was a 1789 map of America by Abel Buell. Crouch himself sold the most expensive atlas, the Bologna Ptolemy from 1477, back in 2007 for £2.14 million.

One of the most exciting things about the map and atlas market, according to Crouch, is that unlike fine art, where most art works are already documented, it is still possible to make important discoveries. “There are still things that come to the market that aren’t known about and aren’t recorded that rival works in national collections.” he says.

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