"Timothy Harper, the author of Moscow Madness, License to Steal and other books, is a journalist and publishing consultant based at www.timharper.com"
I was headed for the British Museum, walking along London's Southampton Row near Russell Square, when my attention was drawn by a sign outside an otherwise nondescript tourist hotel: "Antique Map Fair Today." Being married to a map maven whose birthday was rapidly approaching, I saw potential for a quick gift purchase en route the museum's Egyptian rooms.
Some people hang them on office or living room walls as art. Others like them for unusual and useful souvenirs of foreign travels. And some enjoy spotting geographical quirks: Californians invariably get excited about my "island" map, and New Yorkers often stand for minutes studying my 1842 New York street map that shows a reservoir at the site of today's public library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
Whatever the appeal, antique maps are hot collector's items. And London is one of the best places to find them.
As someone who has shopped for old maps in various cities in the United States, Europe and the Far East, I can attest that London lives up to its claims as the unofficial antique map capitol of the world. There are a number of reputable antique map dealers in the United States, but there are probably more shops with more stock and more variety in central London than in all of America.
The largest and probably best-known map shop in the world is the Map House in Knightsbridge, near Harrods. The shop, founded in 1907, sells a variety of maps in a variety of settings, from the racks of 19th-century maps beginning at $15 or so to the den-like Mews Gallery, used for the private viewing of maps worth hundreds and thousands of dollars. The farther into the shop you go, the higher the prices (one wood-paneled inner room is reserved for maps and globes that cost a quarter of a million dollars or more).
In the front of the shop, less expensive maps are stacked in bins, not unlike a record store. Whether you have a special interest in South Yemen or South Dakota, it's easy to find what you are looking for here. Like most good British stores, there is a good supply of alphabetically-arranged maps of individual U.S. states-always popular among Virginians who want to take home a Virginia map, and so on. Not surprisingly, old colonial American maps seem to be in better supply in Britain, where nearly all the pre-revolutionary maps were made, than in the States.
Weekday mornings are a good time to visit the Map House, whether you're looking for collecting advice or private showings of the prizes in the Map House's collection.
Jonathon Potter, a dealer with a gallery in Mayfair near the U.S. Embassy, is for the serious collector or the one-time buyer who is thinking of spending $100 or more. However, even those with more modest budgets might want to visit his shop. Potter's attitude is that every collector has to start somewhere, and he wants them to feel welcome when they start upgrading. Of course, maps can be a good investment, largely because they remain relatively undiscovered among collectibles-and therefore relatively undervalued.
But novices shouldn't expect to fly into London, scout around the shops and pick up a few maps that can be resold for enough profits to pay for the vacation. "No one should collect maps solely as an investment," Potter warns. "Anybody who buys a map should like the look of it and hang it on the wall to enjoy it."
If your funds are limited, many newer (and therefore cheaper) maps can be found at three stores located within a few minutes' walking distance of one another in the heart of the West End, London's theater and entertainment district: Cartographia, on Pied Bull yard just off Bury Place; Tooley and Adams, on Cecil Court; and Avril Noble, on Southampton Street. All three shops generally have a decent selection of American, European and world maps, mostly from 19th-century atlases, for between $30 and $200.
Even if you know where all the best shops are, it helps to know a little bit about old maps before walking in.
The earliest maps-circular, showing Jerusalem as the center of the universe-date back to the 13th century. The first maps in the general shape of the world as we know it, showing some sort of Americas, date from the time of Columbus. But the maps generally available to collectors date from the mid-1550s, when copper plates replaced woodblock engravings and maps began appearing in atlases, which are the source for more than 90 percent of the surviving antique maps.
Many factors affect the value of a map. Most important is its rarity, followed by condition, which can change the value by as much as 30 percent. Many old maps have been at least partially restored (though no part of the map should be missing), and most were engraved in black and white and then hand-colored. But dealers say that neither modern coloring nor partial restoration necessarily lessens a map's value.
Accuracy, or rather the lack of it, often makes a map more interesting and therefore more valuable. My 1704 Dutch map, for example, is always good for a few comments or giggles from visitors, depending on what they think about seeing California as an island. Canadians love maps, some as recent as the 19th century, that show much of their country as uncharted territory, marked only by pictures of wild animals and Indians.
Most shops offer maps for under $50, but the experts say collectors who begin with several less expensive maps often later wish they had instead started with one or two more valuable ones. The maps that show up in catalogues-and that have appreciated anywhere from twice to sixfold since 1980-are generally priced from $500 to $10,000.
Reputable dealers will generally buy back maps for at least the same price the collector paid. Most dealers will not negotiate prices (except occasionally at the Antique Map and Print Fair at the Bonnington Hotel), but they will give discounts for cash as opposed to credit card sales. Because of their intricacy, maps are not a common target for forgery, though dealers say street stalls and small shops on the Continent, especially in France and Italy, occasionally peddle modern reproductions as originals.
Often, the value of the map also depends largely on the wealth of the area shown. World maps are always in great demand because they were usually the first pages of the atlas and the most decorative. Maps of North America have consistently increased in value because North Americans have the cash to spend on them, while maps of Venezuela, for example, have dropped in value since that country's oil-dependent economy collapsed. Similarly, the political turmoil in Iran and South Africa in recent years has all but killed demand for maps of those countries.
Many libraries, especially at universities, have map collections available for viewing by appointment. In London, the British Library has maps on display. Map shops offer information about shows, including the regular map fair I stumbled across at London's Bonnington Hotel, on Southampton Row just north of Russell Square. This show, held the second Monday of every month, claims to be the only monthly map fair in the world. Held in one of the hotel's conference rooms, it's a low-key affair where most of the business seems to be conducted among the dealers themselves. Indeed, the dealers generally assume that anyone walking in off the street usually has at least a passing knowledge of old maps, but most seem quite willing to explain even the basics to visitors.
One advantage of the Bonnington map fair is that the dealers, perhaps because they buy and sell so much among themselves, are quick to give outsiders the standard 10 percent trade discount. Another advantage is that quite a few of the dealers at the Bonnington fair do not have London galleries; either they're from out of town, or they do most of their business by mail. At any rate, the lower overhead means they are more likely to offer shoppers a bargain for a medium-priced ($100 to $500) map than, say, the Map House or Jonathon Potter.
For example, dealer David Bannister does not have a shop but sells wholesale by mail-except for his monthly stall at the Bonnington. The gray-haired, affable Bannister is one of the organizers of the monthly map fair at the Bonnington, and his table just inside the door should be an early stop for visitors.
For the beginner, a number of introductory books are available, but dealers say the best way to get involved is simply to start looking at maps to determine personal preferences. Someone thinking of gradually building a collection should look for a theme: maps by a certain cartographer, maps noting territory west of the Mississippi River as "Parts Unknown," decorative maps of German cities...
My own hopes of specializing in North American maps showing California as an island were thwarted by the short supply and high prices. So instead I've picked up a few other North American maps with other unusual features, such as one that has the Great Lakes all out of whack and labels much of the Midwest with the names of the Indian tribes of each region.
I'm still looking for maps showing California as an island, but the dealers tell me they're in tremendous demand-not only in California but in New York and Washington, too. "Wishful thinking, I suppose." one dealer said.
-The Washington Post "Travel" section, Sunday, August 27, 1989. Copyrighted material.