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Swaen Catalogue

Tips for prospective map collectors

This page offers information on the different aspects of Map collection.

 Types of Collections - Factors Affecting Map value - How Condition Affects Value - Map Colouring - How to Detect Reproductions - Storage - Reference Materials



Most collectors have a theme for their collections. Often this is a geographic area, usually the one in which they live or are otherwise familiar with, or something else such as the earliest of world maps after the discovery of the New World. Others specialize in a feature such as California shown as an island, or other figments of imagination. Sometimes, people collect examples of many cartographers or a single cartographer. Others might be interested in exploration or highly decorative maps or perhaps maps related to events such as the Civil War or industries such as railroads or even maps of places they lived or visited. As in other fields, there are many directions in which to build a collection.



Many factors can affect value. The following are some of those factors. As a rule: the more of these important qualities possessed by the map, the greater its value.

1. Region Depicted. There are more collectors of maps of some regions than others, affecting the size of the market, and thus the value of maps of those areas. For instance, world maps have a universal appeal. Among nations there are sizable numbers of collectors for maps of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Australia and Canada and increasingly Japan and China. Within the United States some of the larger states such as Texas, California and Florida have a lot of interest, but it is the earliest maps of any state or region that are in demand. Some areas that have small populations, but that are vacation destinations such as Bermuda, Malta and some of the islands of the West Indies are popular. Areas that are more remote or with smaller less affluent populations have less demand and are often very decorative and well priced.

2. Historical importance. Some maps, particularly those of explorers, are the earliest to depict an area or feature. Other maps might depict an important battle or similar event. Other examples may be imagined geography such as California as an island. Generally the closer such maps date to the event the more importance and thus value they have.

3. Size. Generally the larger the map the more opportunity for detail and decoration. Such maps also display well so they are usually more valuable than smaller maps of the same area or event. Some maps are very large and difficult to display, reducing their value.

4. Rarity. Some maps were issued in small numbers and are relatively rare. If other conditions that enhance value, are present the map is further enhanced by rarity, but rarity alone does not create value.

5. Age. For similar maps, older is generally the most valuable, but age alone does not determine value, as some very early maps of regions of relatively little interest have relatively little value. Age, like rarity, is more an enhancement of value.

6. Aesthetic qualities. Some early maps were enhanced with large cartouches, sea monsters , ships and other decorative additions. Such maps display well and thus have greater value. Colour and condition also affect value.



Ideally, an old map should be in as close a condition to the original as possible. If the original owner put the map aside and rarely consulted it, and preserved it well, the map can be in "as new" condition, but such circumstances are rare. The following are some of the usual defects that occur.

1. Stains. Stains come from outside influences or might result from the aging process. Outside stains might be water, coffee or similar liquid, or even wax, are things that can fall on the map in the course of use. Even dust and dirt or soiled fingers can soil a map. Older paper usually is of such quality that it deteriorates only slightly with age, but since about 1820 cheaper paper has been used and this can quickly deteriorate. Browning or oxidation of the paper usually appears at the edge or along the crease where it is exposed to air. Foxing or mildew spots also occurs. A skilled paper conservator can often reduce or eliminate these problems but not always.

2. Tears. These occur through use. Large maps were often folded and are weak at the folds. Other maps were folded into a binding and often tear at the fold. Atlas maps often have a centerfold that is vulnerable to tearing. As a rule the more visible a tear is in the image the greater the problem. Again, a skilled paper conservator can often reduce or eliminate these problems.

3. Margins. It is desirable to have a margin on each side of at least a quarter inch on each side if for no other reason to enable framing to occur. Some maps were not published with such margins or they have been trimmed. Such trimming reduces value. A "false margin" can sometime be added for aesthetic or practical reasons.

4. Creases. The crease on the centerfold or other fold that occurred when the map was issued can often be flattened or reduced. If this is done and they are not obtrusive it does not affect value, as all examples of the same map would have similar creases. Other creases resulting from mishandling affect value to the extent that they interfere with he appearance of the map.

5. Backing. Maps have often been dry mounted or glued to another surface. This can often reduce value a great deal as the glue or backing can contain substances that make the map susceptible to wear, discolouration or other deterioration. A skilled paper conservator can often remove the map and reduce the side affects.

Sometime folded maps have deteriorated to such an extent that they are professionally rebacked with tissue or rice paper. This usually enhances value compared to a map that needs restoration.



1. Contemporary Colour. Colouring varies with old maps. When they were produced some maps were fully coloured at the time, some were partly coloured, some were coloured in outline, and many not coloured at all. When maps were coloured at or close to the time of production it is referred to as contemporary colour as it is contemporary to the printing of the map. Maps were originally coloured to enhance appearance and readability. Generally three or four colours (green, pink, orange and yellow) distinguished political subdivisions, black was used for names, red coloured cathedrals or other buildings distinguish large cities and blue stands for water.

2. Modern Colour. Often older maps issued without colour have colour added in whole or in part. Any colour added long after the map was issued is referred to as modern colour. Modern colour can be skillfully applied or less so but it usually is in outline and may or may not be historically correct. If it is skillfully applied and historically correct it is often difficult to distinguish from contemporary colour. If you are in doubt you can ask a map dealer. Usually they can distinguish between the two.

3. Pros and Cons. Most dealers and collectors agree that contemporary full colour is best and that bad modern colour is undesirable, but after that there is substantial lack of agreement. Many uncoloured maps are much more attractive with skillfully applied modern colour. A few collectors prefer maps only as originally issued coloured or not but most dealers agree that skillful modern colour enhances interest and thus value of many maps. It is very much an individual collectors choice.


Detecting Reproductions.

Very few maps have been deliberately faked to deceive, but some have been reproduced, and occasionally they are confused with the original. There are some obvious signs that they are reproductions.

1. Size. Reproductions are usually larger or smaller than the original. If you can determine the size of the original map comparisons are easily made.

2. Folds and plate marks. Older maps were often produced by a copperplate, and then folded at least once into a volume. These marks are obvious on the original and usually still physically present. On a reproduction they can often be seen but they are flat photographic images.

3. Colour. Most early maps were coloured by hand and brush strokes can often be discerned. Reproductions usually use printed halftones and the small dot patterns can be seen with a magnifying glass.

4. Legends. Reproductions that are not intended to deceive usually identify themselves with fine print that includes modern dates or printing houses.

5. Paper. Early paper is made with a high rag content. Chain marks, watermarks and similar features can be seen in the bright light. Reproductions on modern paper lack such features.

6. Aging Process. Old paper usually looks old. The edges will be slightly worn and perhaps soiled. When in doubt most experienced map dealers can identify reproductions without difficulty

Most early maps were produced using handmade rag paper. By holding an original map up to the light you will see the chain & wire marks, or the impression of the grid that the pulp was pressed onto to dry. Watermarks can also sometimes be seen in the paper. Secondly, the texture of handmade rag paper is slightly rough to the touch. Run your fingers over it lightly and you'll feel the texture, but don't rub your fingers over the image, as oils from the fingers can be destructive to the engraving. Thirdly, a plate mark is usually evident around the perimeter of the map image. This is the impression made by the edge of the copperplate itself. As reproductions have been mostly produced using lithographic processes, and on commercial grade paper, the appearance of the image is flat and smooth to the touch. Under magnification, printed dots appear over the surface. There are no plate marks or, incised lines, on the image.



Museums keep their storage areas at an optimum temperature of around 70 degrees F and relative humidity of 50%. If conditions cannot be kept to this ideal (and historic houses, for example, often are not air conditioned), avoiding extremes, such as the very high heat in an attic, and avoiding major fluctuations, such as an unheated building that gets cold in the winter but hot in the summer, should help from a preservation standpoint. If it's always warm and humid that's better than warm and humid, then cold and dry, then warm and humid again.
It always makes sense to keep any work on paper out of direct sunlight and use UV filtering glas. Check periodically for signs of foxing or mold, as that is one of the common problems with paper and high humidity.
Then there are some interesting products out: Fuji Silysia Chemical Ltd. has a line of products called Art-sorb, which is supposed to absorb and desorb moisture depending on the climate changes and protect the artwork. It comes in various forms including sheets. Their number is (800) 795-9742 and they are in Oregon, USA.
If you want to consult an conservator; The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works gives Referrals. They're in Washington, DC, at (202) 232-6636.



1. Books. No single book tells everything there is to know about map collecting. Libraries often have books on cartography and some are offered by large book dealers or map dealers. Some good reference books are offered for sale on this Web site. Many reference books are rare and seldom are on the market. Since they each have a different emphasis their value varies.

2. Dealer catalogues. Most larger dealers issue catalogues of material. There are often well documented and useful. Occasionally back issues of catalogues appear at used book stores but dealers often have back issues that are available for collectors.

3. Map Societies and networking. Many large cities have map societies and local inquiries will usually locate them. Also, map collectors can sometimes be located on the World Wide Web.

Our best advice is to buy a map or two you find interesting. Try to learn about the map. Who published it how and when? What information does it contain that is interesting? Why? What is omitted? The collector would be surprised how much can be learned from this approach.