Map Quest

Collectors of geographical masterpieces—depicting old words and new—turn their passion into art for the home.

I HAVE A MAP OF DEDHAM FROM 1876, framed and hanging on my living room wall. In it, no detail is omitted—you can see every window, every steeple and practically every tree in the town. And beyond Dedham, there’s nothing but forest. Needham, Westwood and Hyde Park are out of sight, not blending in at the edges. For me, what’s not on the map is as notable as what is—there’s no Route 128, no Fox 25 headquarters, no gargantuan new middle school.

I don’t collect maps. I just have this one on display because I like the connection with my adopted hometown. But lots of map collectors focus on a single place, whether it’s their birthplace, their favorite getaway or the land of their ancestors. Some people want a map of every place they’ve vacationed. And some want different maps of the same place over time.

“I think many map collectors start out—innocently enough—buying, or receiving as a gift, a map of their hometown or state for decorative purposes in their home,” says Stephen P. Hanly, who owns Bickerstaff’s Books, Maps &c. in Waltham. “Often curiosity then kicks in, and the map owner wonders what the same area looked like 50 or 100 years earlier. Or how another mapmaker portrayed the same area. Or how the area relates to other areas. And so a map collector is born, and an increasing amount of wall space is devoted to maps.”

Exploring the Possibilities

“FOLKS REALLY ENJOY SEEING A CHART of Cape Cod, Cape Ann or Boston Harbor that’s 200 years old, just to see how things have changed and how they have stayed the same,” says Hanly.

Some simply like the aesthetic appeal of antique maps. “It almost doesn’t matter what the map is of,” says Michael Buehler, owner of Boston Rare Maps in Southampton. “They like the look—the colorful sea monsters, the fanciful animals—it’s a very simple, gut appeal.”

Early American maps had distinctive styles, making the mapmaker or publisher identifiable. “The borders, font and printing will be similar from map to map. You can stand back 20 feet and say, ‘That’s a Colton,’ just by looking,” says David A. Cobb, curator of the Harvard Map Collection in Cambridge, referring to mid-19th-century maps by the Colton family. Sometimes the maker is what collectors look for, like late-18th-century sea charts by John Norman or Osgood Carleton.

Buehler says that few collections are built solely as investments. “People don’t want to be taken for a ride, but monetary appreciation is secondary,” he says.

Local dealers say that most serious map collectors build their collections because of a love of history. Larry Caldwell of Connecticut says his map collection grew out of his hobby. “I have a great love of American history, and maps are an illustrated form of history. I want to understand the history behind a map,” he says.

With a collection focused on the exploration and settlement from the time of Columbus to the mid-1800s, he also once took a particular interest in a map published in 1624 by a Scottish nobleman named Sir William Alexander. “The map showed the Canadian Maritime provinces, as well as what we think of as New England today,” he says.

Collector David Corey got his start 20 years ago when he bought an older home in Duxbury. “I grew up sailing and working with navigational charts,” he says. “When we got our house I started to do more research, and began to realize the depth of historical maps.” His collection focuses on Duxbury and the nearby coast.

Corey displays many of his maps in his home, but has to store quite a few in his portfolio. “I don’t have enough wall space in my house for all of them, but I’ve framed the better ones,” he says. “It’s wonderful that my wife likes maps too, so she’s generous about their taking up the wall space.”

Off the Charts

AS WITH MOST COLLECTIBLES, prices for antique maps range wildly, with rarity and condition greatly influencing the cost. Cobb says early American maps can fetch $10,000-$25,000, with an occasional map going for more than $100,000.

“I think there is also a wide diversity of collectors of maps. There are those who enjoy hunting through flea markets and building their collections slowly and cost effectively and others who use antiquarian map dealers exclusively. Some will spend vast amounts of money to develop their collections,” says Cobb.

If there were just a few hundred copies of a map printed, many that still exist are likely housed in institutions. With perhaps a dozen or fewer copies in the marketplace, prices can skyrocket. But other maps might have an initial printing of several thousand, with a thousand copies still in circulation.

If you’re interested in finding a map of a local area or an early map of Massachusetts you can often find a smaller, less significant piece for a few hundred dollars. These maps might come from damaged 19th-century atlases that dealers broke up in order to sell the maps separately.

Some people look to display just a single piece. “For some people, maps are taking on that role of art. A lot of people are using them as decorative elements in their homes or offices,” says Cobb. Nautical charts are another area you can acquire at reasonable prices, says Cobb, as long as you steer clear of 18th-century scientific charts, which sell for very high prices.

Whether you’d like to acquire a single map or start collecting, Cobb recommends visiting a map library or collection, or talking to a reputable dealer in order to narrow your interest or identify a map you’d like.

“I definitely see an increase in the interest of having maps in the home,” Cobb says. “I believe the popularity of shows like PBS’s Antiques Roadshow and access to eBay have proven to many that Grandma’s map upstairs has more than just sentimental value.”