Charting out a new investment: the enduring appeal of maps

A symbol of humankind’s thirst for knowledge, maps can act as both art and artefact

A Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements, Henry Popple, 1734.

In an overwhelmingly digital world, maps can feel like outdated relics from an all-too-distant past. It is easy to forget how revolutionary it was, in a pre-Google age, to be able to chart the contours of the Earth.

Antique maps teach us about the world – how it is and how it once was – and how perceptions of our planet have changed over the centuries. Just look to the Schedel world map of 1493, where a side panel depicts all the fantastical creatures that were believed to inhabit the farthest corners of the Earth; or to the countless maps from the 17th and 18th century that illustrate California as an island floating out to sea.

Maps are a symbol of our thirst for knowledge and desire to explore. Their shifting lines chart the course of human history – telling us about geography, politics, religion and culture. And they are great conversation starters, says Massimo De Martini, director of London’s Altea Gallery.

“Our customers buy maps because they are artefacts as well as art. They make good wall decoration because they are easily identifiable: a 300-year-old map of Arabia is still recognisable and so makes an easy conversation piece. One customer complained that his modern paintings intimidated his friends; they felt uneasy discussing something they might misinterpret.”

One of the oldest and most expensive maps currently on offer in the Altea Gallery just off New Bond Street is from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographica. Printed in 1486, the map is valued at £35,000 (Dh167,650) and depicts the all-too-recognisable silhouette of "Arabia Felix". A mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, poet and early cartographer, Claudius Ptolemy compiled all the geographical knowledge of the 2nd-century Roman Empire into his eight-volume atlas that was among the first to use the concepts of latitude and longitude.

A world map from the 1842 edition of Geographica was sold by Altea Gallery, which specialises in antique maps, sea charts, atlases and globes, for over £200,000 a few years ago.

There are countless reasons why someone would be willing to spend that much on a map. “For some, it’s childhood nostalgia of travelling with their family and using maps to trace their route,” says Eliane Dotson, who founded Old World Auctions with her husband, Jon, in Virginia in 1978, and organises five auctions per year, with about 750 maps per auction. “For others it’s a fascination with the age of exploration, a time when explorers were sailing uncharted waters and discovering new lands and societies. And for others it is the progress and evolution of a specific city or country, and how it has developed over time.”

Gerard Mercator, Septentrionalium Terrarum Description, 1606, engraved map, est. £600-800. Courtesy Sotheby's

This week, Sotheby’s held a Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History auction that featured both loose maps and atlases, including a collection of 115 topographical and military maps of Arabia and surrounding areas from the 20th century.

Many of the maps in the auction depicted names, places or events for the first time – for example, the first printed map of the Holy Land; the earliest obtainable authentic map with the place name America on it; and the earliest known survey of Singapore Harbour and first appearance of the name Singapore on a map or chart.

A number of the atlases, meanwhile, were from the “age of discovery” – a period in European history extending from the beginning of the 15th century to the end of the 18th, when overseas exploration and trade flourished. The Dutch were among the most successful traders and explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, explains Cecilie Gasseholm, Sotheby’s specialist, books, manuscripts and maps. “Therefore, the atlases printed and produced in the coastal region of north-western Europe during that period are among the most spectacular of books. 

“Some of the most famous Dutch cartographers were Willem Janszoon Blaeu and his son, Joan, who worked for the Dutch East India Company, and this association meant that they had access to not only the updated records of ongoing exploration, but also a wide range of impressive Flemish artistic sources.”

While ancient cartographic material holds an undeniable draw, all the experts we speak to agree that maps from the 20th century are having a moment. Sammy Berk is vice president of History in Your Hands, a not-for-profit organisation committed to providing educators with historical objects that support the study of US history. He is also founder of the Chicago Antiquarian Map Book & Ephemera Fair, and the San Francisco Map Fair, and has been a dealer in antique maps for more than 10 years. “The fastest growing niche is 20th-century material,” he says. “I feel that this is fuelled by nostalgia, and an appreciation for a time that once was not so long ago, by younger generations – millennials, to be specific.”

Dotson concurs. “The hottest trend in map collecting is 20th-century pictorial maps, which are bold, graphic maps that tell a story beyond the geography they represent. Pictorial maps use artistic and often cartoonish images on a geographical backdrop to educate schoolchildren, encourage tourism, sell products, sway political beliefs, or simply to amuse. Many pictorial maps are still affordable, but they continue to increase in demand and value.”

A prime example is a map that she counts as her favourite – an anthropomorphic illustration from the First World War that shows each country in Europe as a different breed of dog. "Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark! is a satirical map published in 1914 by GW Bacon & Company that depicts the Great War from a British perspective," she explains.

Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark!, G. W. Bacon & Company, 1914.

“Great Britain is shown as a bulldog biting the nose of the German dachshund while a French poodle barks at them both. The map is both whimsical and politically charged, and makes a great conversation piece,” adds Dotson.

Whatever the era, region or aesthetic, Berk has some advice for first-time buyers. “Do a little research, but not enough to convince yourself that you are an expert. Look at what’s out there and see what makes you take a closer look. Once you find something you like, contact the seller and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Any good map dealer has the time to guide a new collector. In the end, I want any customer of mine to have confidence in what they buy and enjoy the process.”

Berk is a firm believer that “just about everyone in the world would like a map of their own ... because everyone is from somewhere, or has a place in the world that has a place in their heart”.