Getting Your Feet Wet

The courage to sail off into the unknown. The optimism to climb the mountain. The audacity to build a transcontinental railroad. Antique maps evoke these ideas and so many more. They are time capsules: to look at one is to look into the past, to see the world as it was (or was perceived), and to see our predecessors.

Antique map of Zelanda (Zeeland, The Netherlands) by Ortelius c1590.
Zelanda map by Ortelius c1590. (Own work).

Antique maps are a joy to collect. I have been a collector for several years now and my collection continues to bring me great satisfaction. Among new collectors or those wishing to break into collecting I see an artificial barrier: map collecting has the unfortunate and unfounded reputation as a pursuit of the wealthy. Attending a map or book fair (many book dealers also trade in maps) is an excellent way to get your feet wet where you will find many people to talk with and a great variety of maps to choose from at prices accessible to you.

Is map collecting too pricey for a new collector, one who wants to test the waters? In a word: no. Lovely maps of the US or world can be found with only a little sleuthing for under $100. Some much older maps are also available at very approachable prices. If you decide to collect maps that are a little more obscure (more about themes later), prices tend to be lower. And for whatever reason, the map market has not climbed in price as much as the art market.

Steve Hanly of Bickerstaff’s Books, Maps &c., an exhibitor at this year’s Washington Antiquarian Book Fair (Booth 48), explains that new collectors may hear of pieces selling at auction for prices in the tens or hundreds of thousands simply because those are the sales that make the news within collector circles. He says however that dealers are aware that collectors want pieces at lower prices and include affordable stock in their offerings; the process of collecting is just as interesting on a modest budget as it is on a high one.

Finding a theme for your collection will guide you as you build your collection. Perhaps you like miniature maps; perhaps you want to buy maps of places you have visited or where you live; maybe you love maps with sea monsters on them. Any of these and any other theme you can think of are great ways to start a collection. If a piece doesn’t excite you, don’t buy it, regardless of its age, condition, or cartographer.

When you decide to buy your first map, you have several options including online auctions, online map dealers, and in person buying. Buy from a dealer you are standing next to. An experienced dealer will walk you through a variety of maps and help you find one that speaks to you. Fairs are an excellent avenue to meet dealers and other collectors. Hanly points out that dealers by and large love what they do, are passionate about maps, and want to pass that excitement on to others. Indeed map dealers are a new collector’s best resource. Ask any question and ask for help finding pieces among his or her offerings. Also, Hanly says, other collectors become experts in their area of interest making them another great aid to new buyers.

Attend this year’s Washington Antiquarian Book Fair, talk to dealers and collectors, and experience an engaging and rewarding pursuit.

This piece originally appeared on the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair website on February 17, 2016.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

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