Today’s Most Collectible Antiquarian Maps & Atlases

Lot 198, Tanner, Henry Schenck after Arrowsmith, Aaron, "Africa," Swann Auction Galleries(June 7)

As a visual artifact of our developing knowledge of the world, antiquarian maps and atlases convey a rich heritage of discovery and artistic detail. Collecting maps has been a popular pastime for generations, but it has become a particular passion for today’s collectors.

We spoke with Caleb Kiffer, Specialist in Maps & Atlases at Swann Auction Galleries, who reinforced this trend by sharing some impressive auction results, including a 1666 atlas, De Zee-Atlas Ofte Water-Waereld, by Hendrik Doncker that sold in May 2015 for $125,000 and a 1777 edition of The North American Atlas by William Faden, which totaled $341,000. In our conversation, Kiffer offered his insights into the evolving interest in antiquarian maps in recent years and provided tips as to how to navigate the market as a map collector. He also shared his favorite works that will soon appear in the Swann Auction Galleries’ Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books auction scheduled for 7 June.

Key Collectible Maps & Atlases

For Kiffer, one of the highlights of this upcoming catalogue is Lot 7 (below), a map of Hawaii that dates to March 1830. Given the date of this map, it is labeled the Sandwich Islands, as this was how Captain James Cook christened the island chain – a tribute to John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich – when he visited in 1778. In addition to this fascinating bit of history, Kiffer notes the spectacular level of detail seen here, as well as in its companion charts (Lots 5 and 6). The creators of these maps, brothers Aaron and Samuel Arrowsmith, were according to Kiffer “at the top of the mapmaking game in England and really took the practice to a higher level of detail and accuracy with charts like these.”

What makes this map, along with the maps of Lots 5 and 6 (below),  particularly compelling is the fact that they were all once owned by the same seaman. Captain Francis Post purchased these maps in 1832 in preparation for an extended voyage around the South Pacific aboard his ship, the Huntress. While there is no way to determine whether Captain Post stopped at all of these locales – documentation reveals that Post did indeed dock in Hawaii, but there is no such evidence of his presence in Tahiti nor the Galapagos islands – the connection to Post is clear, as all three maps bear the inscription: “Francis Post, June 1832.”

Lot 5, Arrowsmith, Aaron & Arrowsmith, Samuel, “Chart of the Low and Society Islands,” engraved chart of Tahiti, 1830, estimate: $800-1,200, Swann Auction Galleries (June 7)

Lot 6, Arrowsmith, Aaron, “Chart of the Galapagos,” surveyed in the merchant-ship Rattler, 1798, estimate: $3,000-5,000, Swann Auction Galleries (June 7)

Lot 7, Arrowsmith, Aaron & Arrowsmith, Samuel, “Chart of the Sandwich Islands,” engraved chart of the Hawaiian Islands, London, 1830, estimate $8,000-12,000, Swann Auction Galleries (June 7)

Also catching Kiffer’s eye are Lots 60 ($10,000-15,000, printed in Germany) and 61 ($5,000-7,000, printed in London), both of which showcase portions of the East Coast as captured by Welsh mapmaker Lewis Evans. Published at a time when German immigrants were flooding into the region, these maps are captivating with both their level of detail and also, from Kiffer’s perspective, the types of details that are included. As Kiffer describes it, these maps are “a great reminder that the immigrant’s prospect of moving across the sea, picking up his or her life and starting something new in an unknown land, was pretty intimidating but also inspired curiosity. You can also see some pretty detailed information from the time of what’s there: the kind of soil, the kind of weather, and so on. These settlers were very agrarian, so these were things that would have been of interest to them.”

One of the more unusual items Kiffer noted in this upcoming sale is Lot 128 (below), which is a map of a property owned by James R. Wood near Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Thought at first a seemingly inconsequential plot map, this document becomes all the more historically significant given that this parcel later became the site of Laurelton Hall, the magnificent mansion of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall once boasted sumptuous design, but it was unfortunately left to languish after Tiffany’s death in 1933. By the mid-1940s the property was subdivided and the main house was abandoned, eventually succumbing to fire in 1957. Only a few fragments this splendid mansion survive, one of them being a portion of the Laurelton Hall loggia preserved in the Metropolitan Museum. This map became a rare piece of history.

Lot 128, C.W. Sprague, “Oak Openings.” Property of James R. Wood, Cold Spring Harbor, manuscript map in pen, ink and wash, New York, circa 1864, estimate $2,000-3,000, Swann Auction Galleries (June 7)

Captivating Curiosities

For all of these intricate details that these makers incorporated into their early maps, Kiffer admits that they did not always get the details exactly correct. He points to Lot 30, Henry Briggs’ The North Part of America ($8,000-12,000), wherein Briggs mistakenly rendered California as its own island floating off of the West coast. According to Briggs’ notation at the lower left, this misconception originated among Spanish cartographers, whose maps of the Americas were reproduced readily – and somewhat misguidedly – in Europe (for more on this history, see Swann Galleries’ “A Famous Cartographic Blunder: The Island of California“).

Other map missteps were the product not of misunderstanding but of belief in mythology. A prime instance that Kiffer reveals in several of these maps is the presence of a massive lake in South America. Labeled as “Lake Parime,” this was the locale that Sir Walter Raleigh set out to find in the late 16th century as on its banks sat the legendary empire of Manoa, or El Dorado. Later proven pure myth, Lake Parime’s presence on these maps illustrates the immense hope of discovery that energized mapmakers.

Lot 88, Henricus Hondius, “America noviter delineate,” engraved map, Amsterdam, 1634, estimate $1,500-2,500, Swann Auction Galleries (June 7)

Trends in Map Collecting

Sales of antiquarian maps and atlases have been relatively strong in recent years, but Kiffer noted an intriguing trend in terms of the mid-range map market. While high-end maps still sell for expected prices, mid-range maps, those in the approximately $2,500 to $5,000 range, are experiencing a steady increase in sales. “I think people are realizing that they don’t want to or cannot spend $100,000 on something really out of this world and rarified, but they can spend $5,000 or $10,000 and get something exciting to own,” Kiffer surmised. It is this excitement, from Kiffer’s perspective, that makes map collecting so enticing.

Tips For Map Collectors

Kiffer also offered some helpful advice for both the novice and the experienced map collector. For those new to the field, Kiffer reiterated the need to do research before buying. Along these lines, Kiffer suggested that the nature of antiquarian map and atlas sales has changed thanks to the advent of the internet because it “has made auctions more accessible. . . .it is used to be that you’d get a catalogue every couple of months and each item had a two-line description with no illustration, so you had to wing it. Today, you can see pictures, you can email with questions; I think it has moved into a visual way of buying.” This increased access, from Kiffer’s perspective, should further fuel the collector’s research into a prospective purchase.

For the more seasoned collector, Kiffer stressed the need to buy with a clear collection focus. “I find dedicated collectors who buy without focus tend to end up with a large collection with no cohesiveness.” Rather, Kiffer recommends centering one’s collection around a key theme – whether it be time period, geographic region, or cartographer – because this can afford the collector the thrill of seeking out these focused examples.

About Caleb Kiffer

Caleb Kiffer is the Specialist of Maps & Atlases at Swann. The department covers an exceptionally wide range of material including maps, atlases, globes and navigational instruments; natural history books, prints and drawings; American and foreign books with plates; decorative graphics; and ephemera from the fifteenth through the early twentieth century.

Prior to his position at Swann, Caleb was director of the Manhattan gallery of premier map, book and print dealer W. Graham Arader III.