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by Bob Brooke

Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson had Jim Hawkins discover a treasure map in his classic book, Treasure Island, finding one has became the passion of many. While many people dream about discovering a treasure map that leads to riches, sometimes itís the old map, itself, thatís worth money.

Collectors seek out maps for many reasons. Some appreciate the beautiful artwork and intricate etchings on early maps and purchase them for decorative purposes. Others seek all maps depicting a specific geographic area and want representative examples of all time periods showing changes resulting from exploration, wars, or just an increase in population.

"Collectors should buy what they like," said John Sandberg of the Yellowhouse Gallery, Nags Head, North Carolina, who sells both old maps and nautical charts of the Outer Banks. "They shouldnít think about how a map will appreciate in value."

An antique map, like any other antique, is one that was printed over 100 years ago. Beginning with those printed around 1550, cartographers depicted the exploration and discoveries made throughout the world during the next 350 years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, cartography became one of the highest forms of fine art.

Maps have always had an immediate visual appeal, whether in the more elaborately engraved, highly decorative style so much loved by early map-makers and publishers, or the elegant simplicity, but high technical accuracy, of the modern map.

Seventeenth-century Spanish author Miguel Cervantes Saavedra wrote that by simply looking at a map a person could: "Journey all over the universe, without the expense and fatigue of traveling, without suffering the inconvenience of cold, hunger and thirst." To look at an old map is also to see the world as it would have been seen by the kings, aristocracy, government, the military, merchants and navigators of the day. Studying a map is to step into the past to see countries, places and people as they once were.

Maps above all tell of man's strivings, the quest to see whatís on the "other side of the hill," across the river, or over the sea, and then his desire to record where he has been and what he has seen. Theyíre the visual record of European expansion to America, for example Henry Briggs' map marking the English settlements of 'James Citie' (Jamestown, Virginia) and 'Plymouth (Massachusetts)

Just as some collectors look for accuracy, others look for inaccuracy-- towns incorrectly sited, coastlines incorrectly charted, and rivers incorrectly routed. They also look for the anachronisms--travelers' tales and fables adopted as fact by gullible map makers--sea-monsters that inhabit many early charts or the fanciful medieval creatures and distorted images of more factual animals that populated the publicís imagination.

Then there are the misconceptions: California as an island, the fictitious islands of Brasil and Frisland, the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, and Raleigh's mythical Lake Parime, with the city of Manoa, the site of El Dorado. Itís all these things, and many more, that make maps such a popular collectible.

The Beginnings 
Map making began in 150 A.D. when Claudius Ptolemy, an Alexandrian geographer, wrote about the world as he knew it. It was from his text that 27 maps were constructed and printed in the first atlases. The first edition with maps, which were probably engraved by Taddeo Crivelli, was published in Bologna in 1477. Three similar sets were published in Rome, by Arnold Buckinck in 1478, for Francesco Berlinghieri, in Florence in 1482, and by Lienhart Holle, in Ulm, Germany, in 1482.

From 1544, there was a great upsurge in the number of people publishing maps in Italy, based in the twin centers of Rome and Venice. These publishers, working independently, produced their maps in different sizes up to nine sheets or more. Gradually it became the fashion to bind the maps together, into composite atlases--frequently called Lafreri atlases after one of the leading publishers of the period, or less commonly IATO atlases (Italian, Assembled To Order).

A while later, the practice of dissecting a map and mounting it on linen inside a slipcase became fashionable, presumably for ease of storage and use. In the 19th century, publishers started to issue single-sheet maps in protective covers, from which they would fold out. While, a relatively safe way of storing the map, repeated folding and unfolding caused tension along the folds and at the joins of folds, which soon gave way.

While printers made maps available since the mid-1400s, they produced the majority of antique maps from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. Generally, the earlier dates are highly sought after, but the field of collecting is vast.

Printing Maps
Printers generally printed early maps using woodcuts--a wooden block which had been cut in relief (the printed area standing out from the rest) and then inked, such as those of Munster (c1550) among others, most of which were printed in black and white.

However, printers used copper and steel engraving to create the majority of antique maps that can be found today. In this process, an engraver cut a reverse image into a metal plate which he then inked and wiped, so that ink only remained in the incised lines. Afterwards, he passed the plate through a roller press with dampened paper laid over the image. The press exerted considerable pressure forcing the paper into the incised lines to take up the ink. This method was capable of reproducing an image with fine detail. Copper, a softer metal, in common use from the early 1500's until about 1820, would produce relatively few maps before having to be re-engraved. Steel quickly replaced copper in the early 19th century because finer lines could be engraved and far more maps printed on this harder metal. Printers used steel on nearly all engraved maps after 1830.

Surface printing or lithography also started in the early 1800's and allowed the artist or cartographer to draw directly onto a specially prepared stoneĖfor several colors, he used several stones. This was cheaper and faster since lithography required no engraver, but most lithographic maps have a fuzzy quality. By the late 1880's modern machine lithography and printing took over and maps lost their decorative quality.

Some maps were never meant to be colored but most antique maps look better with appropriate hand coloring. Ideally, collectors would like to find maps with original hand color thatís applied at the time of printing. However, not all original hand color was well done or even applied correctly. So called "later" or "modern" hand color, skillfully applied, can be aesthetically pleasing, but only if done in a style appropriate to the map maker or the mapís period. Some early hand color can burn the paper, particularly browns and greens which have oxidized over the centuries. This may be an unavoidable blemish in some maps from the 1600's. In the end, color is simply a question of taste for the individual collector and doesnít add to the value.

Before the 19th century, maps were usually published uncolored. During the 16th and 17th centuries, map coloring became recognized as a trade in its own right, effectively being a continuation of the work of the illuminator. Artists used watercolor to elaborately color maps, following more or less standardized colors which are still applicable today--such as brown for hills, red for cities and larger towns, blue for water, and green for woods--and often highlighted them with gold paint.

During the 19th century, it became more common for maps to be published with hand color in varying degrees of quality. Some may have had very simple outline color applied and others may have had full wash color over much of the image area. But with the advent of reasonably cheap color printing during the 1860's, hand coloring became less common.

Dealers use three terms to distinguish a mapís color: "Original coloring," or any map with original hand color applied soon after publication. "Old coloring," or color thatís old, but not original--the map may be 200 years old but the color might possibly be 100 years old. And "recent coloring," or color thatís recently applied using more modern paints, either currently or sometime earlier this century.

Symbols and Such
Elaborate cartouches giving the title, the cartographer, the dedication and perhaps details of scale, as well as compass roses, ships, sea monsters and human figures gave the map painter ample scope to use his imagination, although to some extent the colors of these, too, were governed by the fashions of the period. Those on woodcuts were simple but on engraved maps they became more elaborate through the 16th and 17th centuries. Eventually, they became less formal, influenced by the baroque and rococo periods but often incorporating many aspects of the life of the times, especially scenes in tropical lands.

Before 1550, for example, artists represented the sea with swirling lines, then stippling became the vogue and later still a wash of plain color was used. In early maps, towns were shown disproportionately large and were indicated by towered castles and house roofs, but after the first quarter of the 16th century, artists replaced the castle symbols with church spires or towers and began to include coats-of-arms, ships and cherubs with wind issuing from their mouths. In most woodcut maps, artists represented hills using caterpillar-like lines which in the later 1500's gave way gently rising mounds. Then towards the end of the 17th century, the first attempts were made to give a true indication of height and slope by means of appropriate shading. From the mid-l6th century to the 18th century, decorative cartography and, technical achievement reached its zenith. Usually, the older the map, the more embellishments it has.

The makers often used Latin phrases along the borders or in the legends of their maps. Words like sculpsit, fecit, caelavit, and incidit or incidente referred to the engraver. Excudit, sumptibus, apud, ex officina, formis referred to the publisher or printer. Descripsit, delineavit, invenit, auctore referred to the draftsman or cartographer.

When the fragility of maps is considered, itís remarkable that so many survived over 300-400 years. Apart from those manuscript maps and charts produced on vellum or parchment, most early maps which collectors are likely to find were printed on strong, thick hand-made paper from France, Germany and Switzerland and the finest of all from the Ancona area of Northern Italy. The English produced paper on a limited scale during the 16th century, but usually it was imported from France until about 1610 when good English handmade paper became available in quantity.

Practically all early paper bore a watermark which can be a useful guide in dating a map. A batch of paper might have been used for a limited number of prints for as long as 20 or 30 years but, considered in conjunction with other clues, a date of printing can be sometimes closely determined. The absence of a watermark doesnít necessarily imply that a map is a fake nor does it have any effect on its value.

The size of the paper printers used for maps was conditioned by the size of the trays used for making paper by hand--28 x 24 inches--and by the size of the presses available. In the early days, paper makers produced paper almost entirely from linen and rags pulped in water. After thorough mixing, they dipped a close-meshed wire tray into the pulp and lifted out a sufficient amount to give the required thickness of paper. Next, they drained the water off the sheet and dried it between layers of felt. They hung it to dry. The wire mesh of the tray, into which they worked the watermark, produced the vertical and horizontal lines seen when holding an old map up to the light.

Antique maps can be divided into four main groups, depending on how a single sheet of paper can be folded. Double f olio refers to maps printed on a complete sheet, generally measuring about 20" by 25", then folded and bound into an atlas, each sheet or "folio" or "feuille" being a page. Quarto refers to maps printed on one quarter of a sheet, generally about 10" by 13".

Octavo refers to maps printed on one eighth of a sheet, generally about 5" by 7". However, printers created maps as small as 3.5" x 4.5" during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Read more about old maps.

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