Permanent Marker

Rare maps and atlases have an enduring appeal and can offer a safe haven for your money.

Collecting antiquarian maps and atlases has never been more popular, as bruised investors flee turbulent financial markets in search of a more original home for their money than Swiss francs or gold. “Some of our best customers now are fund managers,” says Daniel Crouch, who runs Daniel Crouch Rare Books, which also sells rare specialist maps in London. “They are traditionally a safe haven investment,” says Crouch. And they look good as they ride out recessions in virtually any style of apartment, hanging harmoniously alongside both modern and classical art. “People just love maps, they have universal appeal,” he says.

Enduringly popular and good investments are atlases and early rare maps of the world. Most collectible over time have been maps of Cyprus, Hong Kong, Malta, New York and America, says Crouch. Rupert Neelands, Christie’s senior specialist on books and manuscripts, explains: “Early maps continue to be a very popular collecting field. The most expensive ones on the market are early world maps, followed by maps of America. The demand for maps of Asia – specifically those depicting India and China – is increasingly strong. The appetite in Asia for this category has grown to such an extent that it may soon eclipse the demand for American maps, which are currently the most collected and highly prized.”

Maps of islands sell well, especially when they have “nice outlines and pretty shapes,” says map specialist Jonathan Wattis of Wattis Fine Art in Hong Kong. Also sought after are incomplete maps, or those which got it wrong, due to guesswork or wrong information. Good examples are California shown as an island, an early Pacific coastline or incomplete Australia. New Guinea was one of the last places to be mapped, says Wattis. “It was forested and couldn’t be seen distinctly until very late on.” Other parts of East Asia, such as Hokkaido, were wrongly mapped until the 18th century.

Hot right now are maps of China, India and especially Hong Kong, says Crouch. Because Hong Kong was only colonised by the British in 1841, accurate mapping of Macau, Hong Kong and south China is relatively recent.

Hydrographic maps of Hong Kong and Macau date back to the 18th and early 19th centuries. “People would drop lines off boats to get soundings in fathoms, and measure depth relative to the coastline,” explains Wattis.

The earliest accurate maps of Hong Kong were produced by Edward Belcher and Richard Collinson, both British naval officers in their mid twenties at the time. They did the first proper survey of Hong Kong in 1841, which became the template for future hydrographic maps right up until the 1960s. In 1945 Collinson created the fist ordnance survey map of Hong Kong. “That was one of the earliest ordnance survey maps ever done, so it was of global importance,” says Wattis.

Collinson and another fellow young officer, Henry Kellett, went on to do scientific surveys of the coast of China as far north as Shanghai, says Wattis, producing a chart of China up to the Yangtze. The surveying continued: by 1860 Kowloon was mapped, and by 1897 the New Territories, with early attempts by missionaries highly sought after.

There were early maps of China too, but these tended to be pictorial. The earliest, by the Ming and Ching gazetteers from Guangdong, did not even name Hong Kong.

The market for maps is now global, with every city having and treasuring its own. A number of local collectors in Hong Kong, both Chinese and foreign, avidly hunt for the very rare early Belcher maps, of which about 30 updates were done, as information about features such as hazardous rocks emerged. Some maps even heralded future events, such as an invasion map of Hong Kong, made by the Japanese in 1937. Already making inroads in China, this indicated their future occupation plans. “A 1937 map would still have been up to date when they invaded in 1941,” says Wattis.

Both Crouch and Wattis agree that international interest in Hong Kong maps is currently running high, fuelled by dealers in London and elsewhere trying to jump on the bandwagon of spiraling interest in anything Asian. Ironically, many rare maps of Asia are elsewhere, because foreign engineers in the 1860s and onwards took them home. So, they can turn up anywhere, even in grandpa’s attic in the UK.

How do dealers find maps? A network of runners in various countries scour local auctions, salerooms, household clearances, junkshops, and anywhere that might yield a rolled up treasure.

Online auctions might appeal to novice collectors hunting bargains, but Wattis advises caveat emptor. “The number of Chinnerys on eBay that look nothing like a Chinnery is huge, so be careful with authenticity online. There are also a large number of reprints around, and look out for fakes.” A reputable dealer comes with a built-in guarantee. “I always give a complete refund and a grovelling apology if there is any problem,” notes Wattis.

But getting started needn’t cost a fortune. Crouch’s maps and atlases range from £100 to £2million, and all points in between, “but you can put together a decent map collection for a few thousand.”

The advantage of investing in maps and atlases is the market has yet to see huge inflation.

“They are not yet oversold, they still have legs and some way to go,” says Crouch.

So what kind of money can be made from map investing? It’s all about rarity, cautions Wattis. He sold a very rare 1771 Dalrymple map of Hong Kong in 1990 for HK$14,000. “Today it would be worth £14,000,” he says.

In 1989, a John Speed (1542–1629) map of China sold for £800 but would achieve £4,500 now. Crouch cites a Blaeu Atlas Sinensis that sold for £4,000 in 2007 and which is now worth £25,000.

So what’s the next big thing? Globally, maps of Hong Kong and China are hot property. The market will get more speculative, but even with rare maps; you can only put the price up by so much, says Wattis. Very few valuable rare maps come on the market. “I can charge a premium, but if I offer it to one collector and not another, no one will speak to me.”