The Oldest Map of New York Is Drawn on Goat Skin, Costs $10 Million
The almost 500-year-old wonder goes for sale at TEFAF later this month.
On a Tuesday in mid-October, the most expensive map ever to hit the market was sitting on the floor of an empty office on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Daniel Crouch, the rare book and map dealer to whom it had been consigned, stood over it, beaming. “I’ve handled several [similar] maps in my life,” said Crouch. “But never one so gleamingly brilliant as this.”
The map, which was created by a Genoese cartographer named Vesconte Maggiolo in 1531, is one of the first depictions of America’s eastern seaboard. It’s also the first (extant) map, ever, to show New York harbor. (Remember, Henry Hudson wouldn’t make it past the harbor and up the Hudson river for another 80 years.)
“It’s one of the oldest to depict Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage,” Crouch said, of the Portuguese explorer whose expedition was the first to circumnavigate the globe. “The map depicts the whole world.”
Crouch first saw the map, which is technically a “Portolan planisphere,” a navigational chart that covered the known world, just 12 weeks ago; before, it was in the possession of an English collector who had bought the work from an ancient, aristocratic Swiss family in 1983. (At the time, Crouch said, the Library of Congress also tried to purchase the map but was outbid.) Now Crouch is offering the map for a cool $10 million at New York’s TEFAF art fair, which opens to the public on Oct. 22.
“If we sold it for $10 million, it would make it the most expensive map ever sold [publicly], along with the Waldseemüller map at the Library of Congress,” Crouch said, referring to the first map to name the American continent, from 1507, which also sold privately for $10 million in 2003. “And,” he added, “it is certainly a lot more beautiful than the Waldseemüller map.”
Measuring 6.7‑feet wide and 3‑feet tall, the Maggiolo map, which Crouch placed in a custom-made aluminum frame, is on vellum made from six goat skins and is “virtually indestructible,” he said. The map was rolled up for much of its five-century existence, and thus the colors, which were inked-in with pen—and in the case of the liquid gold and silver, painted on with a delicate brush—are remarkably well preserved. The one exception is the silver, which has now turned black.
Writing on the map is positioned in two directions, which indicates that it was meant to be set on a table and viewed on both sides. It’s decorated with elephants, dragons, unicorns, castles, schooners, and some of the reigning kings of Europe. It’s also, it should be added, wildly inaccurate.
“You’ll note the ‘sea of Verrazano,’ which shows that America is not broad at all,” Crouch said, pointing to an ocean that appears to be about a mile or two inland. “Verrazano saw [North Carolina’s] Pamlico Sound and thought it was the Pacific Ocean,” he said, and added that the map depicts “an oriental gentleman in a turban, waving from the back of a ship” just a short walk from New York harbor.
Crouch has a theory that map was commissioned as a political tool in an effort to delineate French and Spanish possessions. In an accompanying catalogue, he writes that “it is tempting to conclude that the chart represents a proposal, never enacted, for a détante between France and Spain.”
Beyond the map’s historical significance is a certain wonder that comes from examining how detailed cartography interacted with wild flights of fancy: Four kings are depicted in the interior of Africa, and all of them—King Solomon, Prester John, and anonymous, dark-skinned individuals wearing crowns—never existed. Imagined kingdoms are painted in India, and there’s a channel that separates South and Central America. (Maggiolo was, to be fair, incredulous enough about the strait’s existence that he actually labeled it “Streito dubitoso,” or “doubtful strait.”)
Crouch said that he has several buyers in mind for the map but acknowledged that “when you get to seven figures, the air gets pretty thin.” Still, he maintained, “in terms of [the] general art world, this is actually inexpensive. It’s very upsetting to discover that a Jeff Koons sells for multiples of this.”