Map collecting is a fascinating and affordable hobby, but it’s often difficult to get useful advice on buying maps. Stamp and coin collectors, for example, have long enjoyed a wealth of readily available information on their hobby; the same has not been true for people wishing to purchase maps.
So, here are a few tips:
1. First, know what you’re buying.
This knowledge will grow with your experience, of course, but it can also be gained through reading about maps, talking with other collectors, and exercising a little common sense.
You’ll want to know right away, for instance, if the map you’re looking at is an original or a reproduction. Reprints are fine, for what they are. Many of us will never be able to afford to own the original rare maps of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Reproductions at least give us a chance to see what they look like. But we must remember that a reprint is not the map itself, any more than a photocopy of a desirable baseball card or a valuable postage stamp is not the thing itself.
Usually, reprints are clearly marked as such, with a copyright notice or a message like, “From an original in the Library of Congress.” Other clues are the paper the map is printed on and the printing process itself. We’ll examine these considerations more fully in a future column.
2. Next, you’ll want to know who made the map – and when.
The map maker and the date of issue are two of the chief factors in determining a map’s identity – and its value.
Usually the name of the maker is indicated in the legend, although this is not always the case. If no maker is named, you’ll need to do a little detective work.
The date is the other key piece of information. It may be printed in the legend along with the name of the maker, but often it is not. The date of many older maps can only be guessed at and is commonly shown in catalogs and descriptions as approximate, indicated by the word “circa” next to the year. On newer maps the date is often left off deliberately. Publishers don’t want to get stuck with a stock-pile of “out-of-date” maps, so they’ll leave the date off or conceal it in a code tucked unobtrusively in the margin. Many oil company road maps, a popular category of collectible maps, can be dated by deciphering these codes. We’ll devote a future column to these maps and give you some help in cracking the codes.
In the absence of a date, you can sometimes use political or man-made features on the map to help determine its age. If your map of the U.S., for example, does not show the state of West Virginia, then you know it was made before 1863, when the Mountain State joined the Union. If your road map of the Keystone State shows the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then the map was issued after 1940.
Census figures printed on a map are generally unreliable indicators; a map showing a 1940 census may well have been issued in 1950. Buy from a reliable dealer whom you can trust to date a map correctly.
3. Once you’ve satisfied yourself that you know what you’re buying, the next step is to evaluate the condition of the map.
Many antique maps, including those a couple of hundred years old, are in remarkably good shape. This is because they’ve either been in the hands of collectors, who’ve appreciated their value and taken good care of them, or they’ve been in books, relatively safe from the ravages of wear and tear. It would not be uncommon to find a 200-year-old map in much better shape than a 1960’s road map.
Oil company road maps, as well as maps handed out by chambers of commerce, state highway departments or the American Automobile Association, were usually freebies – giveaways that were not perceived to have any value as a collectible. Consequently, they weren’t treated with a great deal of care. To the motorist they were simply another tool for getting from one place to another and these maps will typically show signs of use.
Misfolded maps and separations along the folds are common, as are markings on the maps. Motorists may have marked their routes, noted their mileages, indicated stopovers, written their grocery lists, and so on. These markings, unless they obscure information on the map, should not diminish its value; in some cases, they even add charm and historical interest. Misfolded maps can be refolded correctly and separations can be repaired. (Use acid-free tape.)
What does destroy the value of a map, however, is a serious tear or missing section. It’s not simply a matter of aesthetics; a map, as we’ve seen, is a tool. It’s a tool consisting of an incredible amount of information densely-packed in a small area. If even a small piece of a map is missing, it means that a large piece of information may be gone. It’s like a book with pages torn out; in terms of tools, it’s like a hammer without a head or a saw without any teeth. Consequently, a map with this type of damage is worthless, at least as far as most collectors are concerned.
Be especially careful buying maps that are already framed. The map may be matted in a way that conceals damage. And it may have been glued or pasted down or mounted with adhesive tape.
4. In addition to its identity and condition, the price of a map will be ultimately determined by supply and demand.
The National Geographic Society publishes, as supplements to its magazine, some of the most beautiful and detailed maps available anywhere. They are highly desirable as collectible maps. Yet the magazine has a circulation of over 10,000,000 and there’s such a supply of these maps kicking around that you can acquire a fine collection for a fraction of their original cost. (Sold separately by the National Geographic Society these maps fetch $7.95 apiece. But you can buy copies at flea markets and thrift shops for a quarter apiece, or less.)
For folding road maps of the 20th century, age is the primary determinant of price, although maps of a local area will usually be marked up more in their own neighborhood. Generally speaking, Florida maps will be cheaper in Michigan – and vice versa. Prices of individual road maps may range between $2 and $15.
Map collecting can be enjoyed on a modest budget. If you know what you’re buying and keep a careful eye on condition, you really can’t go wrong. Speculative price fever hasn’t hit the hobby yet. Even if you were to end up paying more than a map may be worth, you won’t be out hundreds of dollars but only a couple of bucks. And you’ll own a piece of history.
Charlie Neuschafer can be contacted at: New World Maps, Inc. PO Box 541389, Lake Worth, FL 33454 or at www.newworldmaps.com/contact.
Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter and to follow New World Maps on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!