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How Much Are Your Maps Worth?

Obviously, *your* maps are invaluable – if you have one, you can work out where you are on it and then where you want to get to. Then you can work out how efficiently you can get there (saving on either time or fuel or other resources) and if you add in other information sets, you can get to real-time data, then information and knowledge. GIS has been waved about as a foundational technology for a number of years, but it’s often the benefit of applying and combing GIS with other sources that gets us to a dollar amount calculated for it. But how much are people actually willing to pay for “an interesting marriage of science and art”? You would be very surprised.

Cartography as a general practice dates back to Aristotle’s time (Ancient Greece/350 BC), using clay tablets as a medium, with Anaximander creating the first published map of the known world several centuries earlier (along with similar Babylonian tablets from the same period). The modern atlas or collection of maps bound into a book format, really hit its’ stride in the late 16th century, with Abraham Ortelius’ “Theatrum orbis terrarium” which featured 160 maps, eventually publishing 8200 copies in 40 editions in seven languages over the next 70 years – the most recent copy was at Christies for $75,000 in 2013.

It was shortly followed by another Dutch duo, Willem and Joan Blau, official cartographers to the Dutch East India Company – their “Atlas Maior”, up to 12 volumes depending on the version (French (12), Dutch (9), Latin (11) and retailed for 350 guilders (black and white) or 450 (full colour) – at that time, about the price of a nice merchant’s house in Amsterdam city center. An exceptionally well preserved 11 volume copy with 590 hand-coloured maps and over 3000 pages of supporting text (informally known as the Google Maps of the 17th century) went out the door at auction in 2018 for $730,000, over twice the anticipated price.

The most expensive map sold at auction to date is Abel Buell’s exactingly-titled “A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America”, which was sold for $2.1 million in New York in 2010. One of only eight known copies and finished in 1784, it has the distinction of being the first map to be printed in the newly-minted United States of America and was a hand-colored engraved map on four sheets – only three copies have changed hands in the last 120 years.

There is a still a long way to go to get to the most expensive map ever sold – “Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorumque lustrationes” (“The Universal Cosmography according to the Tradition of Ptolemy and the Discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci and others”) by Martin Waldseemüller, which was snapped up in a private sale by the US Library of Congress in 2001 for $10 million. Partially down to the rarity (only one known copy) and partially due to it being the map that first used the term “America” to describe the New World, it is comprised of 12 woodcut pieces and is on permanent display in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

More intriguingly, there was a portolan planisphere (a nautical map first made in the 13th century, noted for its’ impressive accuracy) created in 1531 by the Italian explorer Maggiolo that covered the eastern seaboard of the US (including New York harbor) was scheduled to be sold at the 2017 TEFAF art fair and was priced at $10m. I can find no record online of whether it was sold at all or for what price and all internet roads lead back to the same few articles. Maybe when travel opens up again, I can check in person.

As with all subjects map related, this research uncovered a fascinating array of additional rabbit holes to disappear down, including the most egregious errors committed to cartography (in an early example of fake news, from 1622 through to mid-18th century, California was shown on maps as an island that could be circumnavigated) and Nobert Schild the Büchermarder or “book marten” who spent over 30 years in Europe visiting libraries and stealing rare maps. One or more of them, or something completely different, in the next article.

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