Here Be Dragons—And Map Lovers .
  Resource:wsj   2012-11-26 09:11:35  

When John Adams and other Americans signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, affirming U.S. independence from Britain, one key step was to figure out exactly where the U.S. was.

To do this, diplomats consulted the third edition of John Mitchell's 1755 map of the British and French North American territories. A copy of the third edition of the Mitchell map is up for auction Dec. 5. Arader Galleries in New York expects it to sell for $200,000 to $250,000. "That's arguably the most significant map in American history," said Seymour Schwartz, author of six books on maps, including "The Mapping of America," which he co-wrote.

The Arader auction will be just one of a slew of early-December auctions in New York, including maps, globes and related objects valued at millions of dollars overall.

The highest price paid for a map is believed to be $10 million—what the Library of Congress paid Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg of Germany in 2003 for the 1507 Waldseemüller map, famous for being the first map to name the U.S. region as "America." (It's on display in Washington.)

At auction, the champion is Abel Buell's 1784 work, the first map of the U.S. published in America. It sold in 2010 for $2.1 million after crashing through Christie's $700,000 high estimate.

$100,000: Hessel Gerritsz created this map in the form of a lion, a popular style for showing the Netherlands and its neighbors 400 years ago. Offered by London dealer Daniel Crouch

Many collectors stake out turfs of their own. Ned Davis, a hedge-fund manager based in New York, is one of the collectors who covets mismapping, or maps with mistakes. (Mr. Schwartz even wrote a book called "The Mismapping of America.") Mr. Davis owns several maps that show California surrounded by water. He says, "It's just kind of cool to think about what it would be like if California really was an island."

These kinds of errors were common, and sometimes intentional. "If they didn't know what was in the northwest in Alaska, they might put a big cartouche [a decorative emblem] there. Or in the interior of Africa, they might put an elephant," said Cathy Slowther, senior specialist in maps and atlases at Sotheby's BID +2.16%. London map dealer Daniel Crouch said buyers would expect to pay a modest premium for a famous mistake.

"On the whole, people tend to collect maps of places they're either from or live," said Mr. Crouch. He commutes to his London shop from Oxford, and he collects maps of the university city and its rural surroundings. Russian-born electronic engineer Denis Khotimsky, who now lives in Massachusetts, collects maps of Muscovy (the region that includes Moscow). Mr. Khotimsky said he did not have access to antique maps growing up. On an old map, "what you see is not the depiction of the land, it's the depiction of the human mind and the process of discovery," he said.

Dealers and auction houses say that map prices have held steady over the past few years, with high sale prices for the most sought-after maps. In New York in early December, big auctions will rapidly succeed each other.

At Bonham's on Dec. 4, about 25 maps will be up for auction, including a late-16th-century manuscript world map estimated at $400,000 to $600,000. Arader, which is running its auction through Guernsey's, will offer about 50 maps at its Dec. 5 event, which includes a pair of French globes ($450,000 to $600,000). Swann Galleries (about 250 maps and atlases) sells on Dec. 6. It's Christie's turn Dec. 7, with a Revolutionary War-era map of the New York region for an estimated $700,000 to $1 million, and another showing campaign headquarters in Philadelphia for $300,000 to $500,000.

Other map meccas include the Miami Map Fair in early February and antiquarian book fairs, like one in San Francisco that month.

As collectors will tell you, there are perils in these waters. "I am verging on the obsessive," said Oxford's Mr. Crouch. "I had a deal with my wife that I was only allowed to spend 10% of my income on maps," he said. "I broke that many, many times."

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