Living with Antiques: Charting the Past

Colton’s Township Map of the State of Louisiana with an inset of the City of New Orleans, 1864

In the age of discovery, when the world’s greatest explorers set out for the unknown, they drew up maps to mark their findings and share with their benefactors.

These rugged tools were the lifelines between the newly chartered territories and the known world. Maps outlined landmasses, elevation and waterways. They provided education and proof that a world existed beyond what you could see. Maps in the early days were terribly skewed and inaccurate, but nonetheless useful. In fact, even the maps of present aren’t all that accurate.

“Most people believe that maps are true and scientifically correct, except maps taken from satellite. But maps lie—they have always lied—because, in particular, [early] mapmakers were employed by kings and queens,” says Kathryn Page, curator of maps, manuscripts and special projects at the Louisiana State Museum.

“They were interested in telling the world how much land they owned, and they drew it the way they wanted it to be drawn. You see this in maps drawn by the French and English in the 18th century when they were out doing all this land-grabbing and stuff. Just because it’s on the map doesn’t mean it’s true.”

However, none of that is said to diminish the importance of these records, says Page, a curator of maps for 20 years.

Plan de la Nouvelle Orleans by Jaques Nicolas Bellin, 1764. Both maps are from the Louisiana State Museum collection.

Judging the Quality
Maps of yesteryear are also historical tools that offer insight on the evolution of scientists’ and explorers’ knowledge of geography and technology. When Page is purchasing maps for the museum, paper is the chief determining factor in the buying process. The way it is printed ranks second.

 “The first thing I look at is the type of paper upon which the map is either printed or drawn. This tells me almost 100 percent whether or not the map is genuine,” she says. “By feeling the paper, by holding it up to the light, I can judge whether or not the map was made during the period in which it is purported to be made. Paper made around 1850 was only made from cotton or linen, and it’s very nonacidic. You can hold it up to the light and see the laid lines in the paper. Paper was only made that way up until around the latter part of the 19th century.”

Some Maps Have Endured Centuries
The earliest map in the Louisiana State Museum’s collection dates back to 1525. But, there are maps even older than that, Page explains.

“Pre-Columbian North American Indians, ancient Babylonians, Greek and Chinese cartographers produced cartographic devices and cosmic diagrams,” she says. “The Islamic world and early Christian Europe also produced maps during the
medieval period.”

John Magill, curator and historian for the Historic New Orleans Collection at the Williams Research Center, said earlier maps from the 16th century were drafted on paper with high rag content and have survived as opposed to those from the late 19th century and 20th century when the paper had a high pulp content and was of lesser quality.

Kathryn Page (wearing curator gloves) is the curator of maps, manuscrips and special projects at the Louisiana State Museum.

Collecting Maps
In recent years, maps have become increasingly popular among antique collectors.

“It’s a field that has grown. If you go back 30 to 35 years, you had reasonable prices. It’s become fashionable in the last 10 to 15 years not only for scholarly purposes, but because the maps are very beautiful and collectors buy them for the information,” Magill says.

Some people collect only engraved maps. Others seek maps exclusively for the artwork, and academics are after the information maps contain, Magill says pointing out how maps of Louisiana show researchers the extent of coastal erosion.

“The coastal maps of the 18th and 19th century of the coastline, despite the inaccuracies, are of importance,” he says.

 After Hurricane Katrina, an 1878 Thomas Hardee map of New Orleans became extremely popular with researchers. The reason: The urban areas depicted on the detailed map were most of the same sections of the city that did not flood during the storm. The areas indicated as swamp or marsh, such as Broadmoor and Lakeview, did flood.

“Here you have a historic map that provided interest to modern researchers,” Magill says.

the art of collecting
“If you go back to earlier maps, there were beautiful lithographs and cartouche. They were sometimes quite lavish,” Magill says.

An example that Magill points out is an early 18th-century map depicting the bursting of the Mississippi bubble. This was John Law’s plan to make money off Louisiana and the plan ultimately failed and cost the French government heavily.
“People were trying to make gold out of nothing and the allegoric pictures included people jumping out of trees,” he says.

Page offers advice for those considering antique map collecting: “Collecting maps is like collecting anything else. You collect what you love … what’s important to you.
“You should narrow your field and make a decision about what area within the area you want to focus on,” she says.

Also, she advises to only purchase from reputable dealers and do research on the dealer.

“You want to protect yourself as much as possible from fraud,” she says. “Be careful in the sense of eBay or strictly collecting over the Internet. The best way to tell if a map is authentic is by the paper.”

Henry Avis-Vieira, started collecting antique maps about 17 years ago. 

“Initially, what attracted me to old maps was the fact that they were highly decorative and each one is unique in terms of engraving style and presentation,” says Avis-Vieira, who trades for profit more than he collects.

He says you collect old maps like anything else antique—beauty, rarity, value and uniqueness. Most people, he says, concentrate in one area of the world or one theme, such as European cities or nautical charts of the Atlantic.

 The most important things collectors look for is the name of the cartographer, rarity, engraving quality, condition, region, provenance and any interesting history behind the work, Avis-Vieira says.

Antique maps, which are not as hard to find as some think, can cost as little as $20 or occasionally seven figures. Prices have increased between 10 and 20 percent over the last five years, Avis-Vieira says.

However, whether or not a person is interested in collecting maps, what is certain is that the beauty and history behind them play an important part in defining world culture.

“Maps can tell us for example about papermaking, art and craft because the whole craft of creating a map and drawing all of the cartouche are incredibly beautiful,” Page adds. “They tell us history.”

The Right Direction
Searching for a map? Here are some places to visit
on your exploration.

Historic New Orleans Collection: 533 Royal St., www.hnoc.org. Though there is no exhibit focusing on maps right now, there are some on display. The collection’s gift shop sells reproductions of maps in their collection, such as one of New Orleans by Thomas Hardee.
   
Louisiana State Museum (The Cabildo, the Presbytere and
the Arsenal in New Orleans; the Louisiana State Museum
in Baton Rouge). Though there is no exhibit focusing on
maps right now, there are maps in a number of larger exhibits (such as at the museum in Baton Rouge). You can also find
out what is in the museum’s collection at http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/collections/hcenter.htm#Maps.
For more information, call 504/568-6968.

Interested in Louisiana maps?
“Charting Louisiana: Five Hundred Years of Maps,” is a book depicting Louisiana history through maps and is a project of the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Map dealers
Collector Henry Avis-Vieira says the following are good sites to visit.

www.themaphouse.com (based in London)
www.alteagallery.com (based in London)
www.martayanlan.com (based in New York)
www.sanderusmaps.com (based in Ghent, Belgium)
www.alexandremaps.com (based in Toronto)
www.pettinarolimapsandprints.com (based in Milan)