Antique maps provide a fascinating insight into how the planet was once perceived and have great investment potential, too, as the experts from this rarefied world can verify.
A quick geography test: can you a map without stopping to look at it? For the majority of humans, it seems even school days spent reciting capital cities couldn’t burry the desire to pick out a point and understand its relation to another. The appeal of maps beyond the purely functional, as both diversion and decoration, has been well established for a century or more. Until now, though, their status as an investment has rarely been considered. And that’s excellent news.
Cartography is the New World for collectors. According to Daniel Crouch, of Daniel Crouch Rare Books in Mayfair, it’s been brewing for a while. ‘I think there’s a growing acceptance in the art market of prints and engravings, fuelled by our understanding of modern art and photography,’ he says. ‘Then, because we all travel more, and emigrate, we have a feeling for place and location. And finally we experience and encounter maps much more these days, on the internet and Google Maps and so on, and understanding of cartography has increased as a result.’
The other factor is availability, which places printed maps in a sweet spot between supply and demand. From the 15th to the 16th centuries, they were typically produced in runs of between 200 and 2,000, but the ravages of varnish (‘the enemy of paper’, says Crouch), folding and hanging saw off most; those that survived were usually hidden away in libraries, as country houses were dispersed’, says Crouch. ‘Then, in the late-Nineties, there was a sudden realisation that there isn’t an endless supply.’
Prices start surprisingly low, at a few hundred pounds or less. Crouch says he recently sold a map of London for £60, and produces an example of the first English county maps, from the turn of the 19th century: ‘They’re about 6ft square, extremely dramatic and colourful, and rare, but you can buy a really good one for £2,000.’ Even at the top end, by art-market standards, maps remain affordable. ‘Being a reproduction doesn’t make them any less interesting, but it does mean you can put together a world-class collection,” he says, ‘whereas if you collecting antiquities that would be impossible.’
Massimo De Martini of Altea Gallery in the West End sees the low entry point as a great advantage of a market built on fascination. ‘I’d always suggest you start with something small – paying £50-$100 – and learn about it,’ he says. ‘You may want to concentrate on maps of London or Sardinia – whatever it is, someone somewhere will have written a book about maps of that area.’ His own interest began with historical sea charts of his native Genoa, and he sees nothing wrong with following a personal connection – home or birthplace – at first. From there, the possibilities are near limitless: ‘My most expensive map may be £100,000, but most of them are below £10,000. You can become one of the biggest collectors in an area. It’s a very niche market. In the UK, there are maybe 15 dealers and, worldwide, there are only about 20 more who have stock and catalogues.’
Small as it is, the market is becoming more serious, as maps of £20,000 upwards have become an attractive target for investors looking to diversify a portfolio. According to Philip Curtis, director of the Map House, oldest and largest of the UK’s dealers, ‘Prices at the top end have grown exponentially, anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent every year over two decades.’ This increased interest has also expanded collectors’ horizons, he says. ‘Previously, 19th-century maps were inexpensive, but now people are looking at maps of British colonies and realising how import many of them are. For example, we recently staged an exhibition of maps of the Heroic Age of Antarctica – Scott, Shackleton, Morse – from the early 20th century. Also booming in interest are pictorial maps from the early 20th century. They are often given away and thought of as ephemeral, fun pieces, but now they’re appreciated for their artistic side and also for epitomising their time.’
If maps are subject to the vagaries of fashion like this, it’s not to the extent of modern art. As a rule, they’ll sit as nicely in a modern steel frame as in a carved wooden one, and equally well within a minimalist décor as in a panelled library. And, of course, their appeal is not only aesthetic. ‘One if the joys of being in this business is that there are fascinating aspects to every map,’ says Curtis. ‘In some, it will be pure beauty; in others, their historical importance; in others sill, an interesting mistake.’ A brief tour of the Map House takes in California’s 150-year history as an island and Australia’s existence in theory centuries before its actual discovery. Daniel Crouch and Altea have their own treasures, from the gallows drawn in a 1572 view of London to Scandinavian sea charts emblazoned with sea monsters.
For anyone interested in setting out into this world, an ideal point of departure is the London Map Fair, staged this year on 7 and 8 June at the Royal Geographical Society. But beware the irresistible allure of the map. ‘A lot if language we use echoes drug use – “obsession”, “addiction”, and, of course, we’re “dealers”,’ warns Daniel Crouch. Massimo De Martini puts it in even more dramatic terms. ‘When a customer comes back and buys a second map, they’re a collector,’ he says. ‘But when they have a third, they’ve caught the disease – and it can’t be cured’.
The London Map Fair, 7–8 June, Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, SW7 (londonmapfairs.com); Daniel Crouch Rare Books, 4 Bury Street, SW1 (crouchrarebooks.com); Altea Gallery Ltd, 35 St George Street, W1 (alteagallery.com); The Map House, 54 Beauchamp Place, SW3 (themaphouse.com)