Mapping It Out

Many years ago when my husband and I were dating, he started a collection of antique maps.   They were framed and hung around his small cottage on Calhoun Street.  Over the years, the maps have donned the walls of our living room and study and now reside in the upstairs landing of our home. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to them as maps weren’t that interesting to me. Until now.

Maybe it’s my love of history and travel, but now see them as interesting and beautiful works of art. I’m even trying to justify buying a few more.

Apparently I am not alone. I recently received a brochure from an antique auction house advertising a sale of maps, ranging in price from $1,000 to $250,000. It seems as if maps are charting a course all their own.

“Antique maps add interest to a room and are great conversation pieces,” says Vincent Bergeal, who sells antique maps and botanicals in his eponymous shop on Magazine. “They are very personal to the collector as they usually represent an area the owner traveled to or where his or her family is from. They add an historic element to a room, plus, they are often very pretty.”

The oldest maps were made of vellum, or animal skins (mostly lamb) and are quite rare, thus extraordinarily expensive today. Linen maps followed vellum, then cotton rag paper was used as it didn’t yellow.

Most antique maps have some sort of deterioration; so don’t let a small tear or bit of water damage deter you from acquiring the piece. Maps can often be restored, if the damage is more than you want to see.

“Because most maps were drawn or printed in black ink, color was often added later, mostly by women artisans,” says Jon’l Briles, also of the Vincent Bergeal Gallery. “The added color can sometimes add to the value of the map, depending on the quality of the work.”

No matter how old or valuable your map is, make sure it is framed properly to preserve it for its lifetime.

“The map should be placed on an acid-free backing with an acid-free mat,” says Briles. “The glass should be UV protected to prevent damage from any light source. If a mat is not used, the framer should place small acrylic spacers so air can surround the map. In framing, do it once and do it right.”

Maps can be purchased from dealers and antique stores, auction houses, estate sales and even used bookstores. You can ask for a certificate of authenticity, but these are not often readily available. Use caution when buying an antique map online, unless you know and trust the dealer.  

You can start a collection on any budget, including European maps from the 1800s for under $100. Some collectors begin by purchasing maps of an area of the world that interests them. Others pick maps based on an era. Still other collectors just buy what they like. In New Orleans, there is a robust interest in maps of the city, Louisiana and Gulf Coast. With the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans this year, interest in city maps may be at its peak.

“There’s always been an interest in collecting maps, but it seems to be more popular today than in the past,” says Bergeal. “We are seeing more women purchase maps, often for gifts for a husband or significant other. We are even seeing maps placed in children’s rooms, especially nautical maps. It’s a gift that always holds its value — and even increases — throughout the years.”

Tips for maps

1. Maps are traditional in nature, so frame them traditionally
2. Hang maps close to eye level so the viewer can read the map
3. If you have 3 maps, hang the largest map in the center with smaller maps above and below
4. Dark woods or gold are best for frames and enhance the maps

From John Pecorino, art installer


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