Among those unfamiliar with old maps, perhaps the most commonly asked question is, “How do I know if this is really an old map?” That is, “How do I know it was really printed a long time ago, say, in 1548, and is not some kind of modern reproduction or fake?”
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Facsimiles, fakes and reproductions
First, some definitions of terms: For the purpose of this article I use “old” and “antique” interchangeably to refer to any map printed more than 100 years ago.
That these maps are no longer being published gives them an inherent rarity, some relatively common in trade, some known in a single example. With the passage of time very many maps have been lost, damaged or destroyed. Of the survivors, many have found their way into institutional collections to repose there for ever, while demand for the best maps means that many command eye-watering prices.
When demand outstrips availability, there was an alternative, which brings us on to facsimiles, fakes and reproductions.
Strictly speaking, a facsimile is meant to be an exact copy of the original, though not meant to deceive. An expensive undertaking, it is generally reserved for the most important maps. Legitimate modern facsimiles of old maps are relatively uncommon, but are also easy to recognize: Somewhere on the printed image, usually below the border, you will probably find a statement in a modern typeface such as “Reproduced by [such-and-such publishing co.],” followed by a 20th- or 21st-century date.
A fake is an attempt to make so exact a facsimile of a map that the maker can pass it off as an original to an unsuspecting buyer. Fortunately, it is difficult and time consuming to forge an old map, particularly one printed before the early 1800s. Convincing fakes are few and far between, and you are unlikely to encounter one if buying from a reputable source.
A reproduction is a copy of the original map produced for commemorative, decorative or study purposes and not designed to deceive. They are sold by the thousands for a few dollars apiece, in museum and library shops and on the Internet. Selling reproductions has a long tradition in this country: the earliest American map reproduction dates from 1826. The maker, Moses Swett, made it clear that it was a reproduction of the original, with three separate credit lines outside the border. Likewise, many, though not all, modern reproductions will have the name of the printer or issuer printed somewhere in the margin, usually below the lower border.
With the accelerating digitization of library collections, coupled with the ever-increasing quality of modern printers, high quality copies of old maps are appearing for sale, particularly on the Internet. Some of these are properly labeled, some not.
General characteristics of antique maps
Antique maps were printed by a variety of methods, each of which leaves tell-tale signs. Whatever the printing process, however, these maps have certain characteristics in common.
Type of paper
Most old paper looks old. To begin with, there is usually some toning (faint browning) to the paper, particularly at the edges. Further, there is almost always some wear, such as creases, tears or holes; soiling, such as finger smudges at the lower corners; or rust-colored spots known as “foxing.” That said, presence or absence of such features is suggestive rather than conclusive: aging can be faked, while a small percentage of genuine maps do show up on the market in pristine condition.
One useful sign of a reproduction is when folds, creases, or tears do not reflect actual damage to the paper. This happens when an original antique with actual damage is photographically reproduced, and is a near-certain sign that a map is a relatively modern reproduction. A good number of modern reproductions are made from maps in libraries, so library acquisition stamps or other markings in the image are another indication.
For antique maps printed before 1775 or so, one conclusive test is the type of paper used. Before then printers used “laid” paper, made from a pulp of macerated cotton rags spread in a thin layer on a wire screen and allowed to dry. The wire screen imprints the paper with a distinct pattern of vertical lines (sometimes known as “chain lines”) spaced about an inch apart transected by a mesh of closely-spaced horizontal lines (fig. 1). Later “wove” papers are both smoother in feel and lack this line pattern. This provides a conclusive test: a map lacking chain lines is not on laid paper and could not have been printed before about 1775.
Evidence of binding
The vast majority of old maps available on the market were at one point bound into atlases or other books, and will show traces of the binding process. The most common of these is one or more folds, introduced at the time of binding so the map would fit the publication, usually down the center of the map. Traces of a “binder’s stub” may also be visible. This was a thin strip of paper glued to the rear of a map and used as the point of binding. Even if the stub has been removed, a strip of faint browning from glue residue may be evident (fig. 2).
Another common sign is a “notch” in the margin, which indicates where the map was trimmed to facilitate folding and binding.
While presence of binding signs is reasonably good evidence for a map’s antiquity, the converse is not necessarily true. Some early maps were issued unbound (often referred to as “separately issued” or “broadside” format) and by their nature will lack such features.
For anyone but the specialist a map’s coloring is rarely useful as evidence for or against antiquity. It is certainly true that many early maps were colored, but many were not; in fact, most maps were issued in both colored and uncolored versions. On the other hand, modern colorists are quite capable of coloring maps in a convincingly “antique” manner.
There is however one thing to look for: In maps with old color, published before say 1820, the color often reacts with the paper, so some “show-through” of the color, particularly the greens, is often visible on the reverse. The presence of such show-through is fairly strong evidence that a map is old, with old color; however, the lack of show-through must be interpreted as inconclusive.
Modern labels and annotations
A sure-fire “tell” that what appears to be an old map is not in fact old are modern labels or notations printed on the map, usually in a modern type face and usually in the lower margin. They could be as simple as a note reading “Map reproduction by [such-and-such] Map Printing Co.” Or they could be more detailed, with information about the map itself, such as “The first map of New England, drawn by John Smith in 1614.”
Looking at engraved maps
The vast majority of old maps printed between roughly 1550 and 1825 were produced by engraving. In this process, an image is first incised into a copper plate using a sharp tool. The plate is inked and then wiped, leaving ink only in the incised areas. Finally, the image is printed using a powerful press to force the ink residue from the plate into a sheet of moistened paper.
Note that other methods were also used to print early maps. In particular, many maps from before 1550 are woodcuts, while most maps from 1825-1900 are lithographs. Identifying the signs of these processes can be more challenging, and will be addressed below.
The engraved line appears solid when viewed under magnification, unlike modern “halftone” printing which creates arrays of tiny dots that appear solid when viewed unaided (fig. 3). Any map whose lines show this halftone pattern is absolutely a later production.
There are two more subtle features of engraved lines.
First, they often end in a very fine, sharp point; this is best seen in the tails of calligraphic lettering or in the parallel lines (“hatching”) used to demarcate coastlines (fig. 4).
Second, they have a bold, three-dimensional appearance, particularly when viewed from an oblique angle or with a raking light. In fact they are three-dimensional; the press forces the paper into the engraved area of the plate, so that the inked areas of the paper are very slightly raised–and this can often be felt by running a finger across densely engraved areas. By comparison other maps, especially lithographs and modern photo-reproductions, have a “flat” appearance and feel.
The pressure applied in printing leaves a depression on the paper matching the dimensions of the engraved plate. The plate mark, or the outer edge of this depression, is visible as a fine indentation just outside the neat line, the thin line that defines the border of most printed maps (fig. 5). If a map purporting to be an engraving has good margins but lacks a plate mark, it has either been trimmed and had new margins added or is not an engraving as is claimed.
Plate marks can be faked, however, so the presence of one is not conclusive. One suspicious sign is a mark that is too “perfect” or prominent. True plate marks are usually subtle and not necessarily apparent at first glance. They also often have a small amount of smudging from residual ink.
Another cause for concern is a mark that is too far from the neatline. Due to the expense of copper, engravers typically used plates that were just large enough to fit the map image. Most true plate marks, especially on 16th and 17th century maps, are half an inch or less from the neatline.
Looking at woodcuts and lithographs
Previously I mentioned woodcuts and lithographs. Woodcuts are produced by carving away one surface of a wooden block, so that the image to be printed is raised above the surrounding wood. The raised area is then inked and applied under light pressure to the paper to produce the printed map (Note that, as with engraving, the carving must be done in reverse, so the map prints properly.) The woodcut technique was most commonly used for printed maps in the 15th and 16th centuries, though it is occasionally encountered later, as with the famous Gerry-Mander map (fig. 6), first published in 1812.
Lithography, on the other came into common use in the first quarter of the 19th century, and most maps printed after 1825 use some form of this process. Early lithographs were produced by drawing the image to be printed, using a special crayon or grease pencil, on a block of limestone or other stone (Hence the term “lithography,” from lithos, the ancient Greek word for “stone.”) The stone was then wetted and a special ink applied, formulated so that it would adhere to the drawn image but not the surrounding stone. The inked stone was then run through a specially-designed press to produce the image. Lithography had the advantage of being faster and cheaper than earlier printing methods, for the first time opening the door to mass-produced maps and other images.
Unfortunately, when it comes to woodcut and lithographic maps, fakes and facsimiles are generally much harder to identify than in the case of engravings. However, as I discussed in the section on the “General Characteristics of Antique Maps,” there are things you can look for. They include positive signs of age such as paper that appears old; evidence of binding; show-through of color; and/or signs of soiling, damage or wear. Signs that a map is a modern reproduction include paper that appears bright white, smooth or “hard;” and any modern printed labels or annotations in the margins.
Maps printed on gold foil
Finally, some time in the 20th century it became a “thing” to reproduce old maps on gold foil (fig. 7), and such maps are still sold today, on Amazon.com and elsewhere. Many people did, and still do, consider such maps to be decorative objects. Whether or not this is the case—and I must admit, they are not to my taste—maps printed on gold foil are not antiques and have no value.
A note on framed maps
Maps make terrific display objects, so it can be appealing to buy a map that is already framed. However, my advice is, never, ever buy a framed map unless you have had an opportunity to inspect it out of the frame, and/or the seller is willing to provide a full money-back guarantee in the event the map turns out to be problematic.
As I hope I have made clear, handling the map itself is a vital part of the evaluation process. Once a map is in a frame, you are unable to touch the paper. The glass prevents proper examination of the printing method, while the mat can be used to conceal printing lines and other tell-tale information found on facsimiles and reproductions. Further, most repair and restoration work is performed on the back of maps and is often invisible from the front. Framing can be used to conceal such work, until at some later point the owner wants it reframed or appraised, or wishes to sell it to an experienced buyer who wants to see the back.
Purchasing antique maps
While I hope these tips are valuable, there is simply no substitute for experience. I always advise new collectors, who are still developing this knowledge base, to work with established dealers who will be only too happy to share their wealth and breadth of experience to help avoid pitfalls. Established dealers will also offer a full and unequivocal guarantee of the maps they sell.
Over time, you will learn to “trust your gut:” If a map doesn’t look or feel “right,” just walk away … or at least ask a lot of questions.
If after reading this article you think you have an old or antique map you would like to sell, read more on our “We Buy Maps” page or contact us directly.