Starting your collection

Maps are the perfect collectors’ item as they appeal to our innate curiosity to answer questions such as “where am I?” and “what time is it?”

For a new collector it is a good idea to identify a theme, or themes, that appeal to your personal taste. It can take some time to figure out exactly what you want to collect, but in time your collection will develop a focus. Broadly speaking, there are three types of collections – horizontal, vertical and thematic. Horizontal collections centre around a certain time period or mapmaker, such as Dutch maps of the sixteenth century. Vertical collections revolve around a specific place and include maps from any time period that feature that location. Thematic collections are not defined by date or geography but instead on certain characteristics, including railway maps, maps of imaginary lands or maps in the shape of animals. No matter what you focus on collecting, finding a theme that appeals to you will help you tailor your search for maps and avoid the trap of just buying “stuff”. Of course, collections evolve over time and these themes should serve as a good starting point rather than being restrictive.

A selection of a few good reference books will be of immense help. Even with numerous online resources, these printed sources provide a solid foundation for understanding what is out there to collect. Keep an eye out for both general and specialist reference books that offer a history of the subject and an overview of the maps published in that area.

There is no substitute to viewing and handling the maps yourself, so make the effort to visit dealers and attend specialist map fairs and auctions to get a better sense of how the maps look in person. You will also get a better sense of what is available to collect and a sense of price points. The annual map fairs are a great opportunity to view maps in person. You can also try and find a Map Society near you or see what the International Map Collectors’ Society (IMCoS) offers in your area.

In your quest to collect maps, it is important to remember that the lists in reference books are often subjective and reflect the tastes and biases of another collector, dealer or scholar. It is easy to attach too much importance to lists compiled by famous collectors or other list compilers rather than collecting based on your own instincts and preferences. One of the exciting parts of collecting antique maps and atlases is the new discoveries that are made each year, which brings new items to light and fresh scholarship to the trade. Chart your own path, and do not simply allow yourself to simply be led by others who collected before you.

Many collectors are conducting their own pioneering studies within their collecting themes. The number of specialist map collecting books has grown exponentially in the past 30 years and will continue to do so. Finding an unrecorded map or identifying a previously under-appreciated piece of information on a map can be one of the most rewarding elements of collecting. Some of the smallest and seemingly non-descript maps yield some of the most significant discoveries. There is a vast amount yet to learn and much unwritten, and fascinating thematic studies yet to be conducted.