Mapping the price of atlas

Old atlases have often been cut up to make framed maps – but this has actually increased their rarity value.

Maps and atlases lie at the junction between rare books and fine art, and are natural collectors’ items and potential tangible investments.

But there are nuances in the market that take them beyond the normal considerations that might apply to books, stamps and other paper items.

The ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations all made maps of a sort. Some even claim that maps date back to pre-history. But manuscript maps as known today date from the 12th century and the first printed ones, generally of the Holy Land, from around 1475.

Like books, collections of maps date back through these eras. Maps and atlases have been collected l for as long as they have l been made. But most large collections date from the 17th and 18th centuries, the best of which was formed by George III, and is now in the British Library.

After the second world war, many collections originating in continental Europe were sold by libraries and wealthy families. During this period, however, enterprising dealers decided that an atlas was probably worth more if it was cut up into individual pages, then sold as framed maps and used for decorative “artworks”.

In turn, as often happens, in collectables markets, far from depressing prices, this increased supply led to a boom in interest and in effect the creation of the market in maps that we know today.

Paradoxically, though, the position now is also that old atlases have gained something of a rarity value and are generally worth much more than the sum of the value of the maps they contain. According to atlas specialist Daniel Crouch, “the practice eventually gave a turbo-boost to the price of atlases. It was only recently that people realised how few of them there were around”.

So there are plenty of notable instances of maps and atlases that have seen substantial price appreciation. The Daria atlas (named after an eponymous Genoese family), sold previously for £247,000 in 1988, went for £1.5m when it was last up for sale in 2006. It was one of 700 volumes sold from the collection of the late Lord Wardington, a well-known City stockbroker, to raise funds to restore his fire-damaged family home.

Nor is this an isolated instance. Prices have risen consistently. Mr Crouch says he has sold seven copies of Delisle’s Atlas Russicus (the first complete atlas of Russia, originally published in 1745) between 2002 and 2008 with prices steadily rising from £4,000 at the outset to about £40,000 at the last count.

This reflects a boom in the market for maps from emerging economies, prices of which appear to growth in GDP. An “Ortelius” map of China, for example, typically sold for about £2,000 a decade ago. The price is now reckoned to be upwards of £6.000. Rare maps of European origin have stagnated by comparison.

American rarities are seeing some revival and Indian collectors have yet to prove a force in the market.

One notable quirk is that maps of islands, whether for aesthetic reasons or because of greater national pride, tend to be sought-after, and represent a worthwhile theme for astute would-be collectors.

Prices of top items can be hefty. The Bologna Ptolemy atlas from 1477 (one of only 26 known copies) sold for £2.14m in 2007, and the 1602 “Ricci” map (a 5ft x 12ft monster showing China at the centre of the known world) for $lm in 2009.

What figures like this show is that compared with the prices of museum- quality art, maps and atlases have relatively modest valuations. A dealer worth his salt should be able to assemble items at least as good as examples in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Library or the Library of Congress for prices that are not solely the preserve of the super-rich.