Why the Map Trade Still Matters in the Age of the Internet


Good afternoon, and thank you for coming today.  I would also like to thank Sammy Berk for organizing this wonderful Map Fair and the leadership and staff of the Newberry Library for hosting this event.

This talk has its origins in a roundtable I participated in last year, at a conference on the occasion of the Harvard Map Collection’s 200th anniversary. In an email prior to the conference, Harvard Curator David Weimer primed the pump with the question, “What is the social utility of the map trade?” Frankly, my initial reaction was, “I’ve no idea… why do you ask?” But the more I thought about it, the more relevant the question seemed, given that it has now been roughly 20 years since the Internet began to upend our business.  So I managed to put together some brief remarks for the roundtable, and out of them has developed this talk, “Why the map trade still matters in the age of the Internet.”

The talk will have three parts.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 2

I will begin by speaking about my professional background, primarily because it has shaped my outlook on the subject at hand.  Then I will review ways the Internet has affected the market for antique maps, put pressure on the relationship between dealers and collectors, and even called into question the role of the map trade (By the way, I use the term “collectors” as shorthand for everyone who buys antique maps, including librarians and museum curators.)  Finally, I will describe features of what I believe to be the enduring “value proposition” offered by the map trade, or at least the map trade at its best.


A bit about my background

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First, a bit about my background. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1989 I pursued a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Michigan. But it soon became clear that even if I finished my PhD my professional future was bleak.  So in 1992 I finished my Masters, declared victory, left Ann Arbor, and moved to Boston.  There an act of nepotism landed me a job at a management consulting firm—where else was a recovering philosopher to go?

I bought my first map in the Summer of 1993, while on a date with Anne, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife of almost 20 years.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 5

We were headed to Crane Beach, in Ipswich on Massachusetts’ North Shore: It was to be a classic Summer day… some time on the beach, maybe a walk, and then to Woodman’s for a lobster. But on the way we passed a sign for “The Scrapbook,” a local map and print shop.

Having something of a historical bent, I asked Anne if she’d mind just a quick, 15-minute stop to have a look around.  Ninety minutes later we walked out, with me several hundred dollars poorer, but richer for the acquisition of a copy of the Argonautica.  

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 6

This lovely map was issued in the Parergon, a historical atlas appended to later editions of Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. It depicts the supposed setting for the travels of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.

And so it began.  Over maybe 7 or 8 years I developed a modest collection, though always a bit willy-nilly and opportunistically… there was never, to be sure, any kind of plan beyond a longing for this or that particular map.

Then around the year 2000 I hit an early mid-life crisis: I’d had it with my career in management consulting and was casting about for what to do next. Eventually, with the encouragement of my wife, I took a leap into the unknown and started Boston Rare Maps. Mind you, we were recently married, and had just had our first child and bought our first house … hardly an auspicious moment for an entrepreneurial venture.

That said, the business began to prosper pretty quickly.  This was due to in part to a couple of good business decisions I made early on, but also to the good fortune of meeting Harry Newman of The Old Print Shop, who befriended me and offered invaluable mentorship. It also helped that the early aughts, the years before the Great Recession, were a heady time for the map trade.

The business soon evolved into what you might call a research-intensive boutique, concentrating on rare and unusual Americana and serving a modest number of clients. A few considerations drove this strategy, among them our country location, which militated against a retail gallery; my wish as a father with young kids and a working spouse to be able to work from home; and my preference for a streamlined operation instead of the complexity of a “volume” business. Here are a few images of what I call world headquarters.  This the grand entrance:

BRM Grand Entrance


Here’s the commodious office space for the large staff:

BRM World Headquarters


And here’s the warehouse facility:

BRM Warehouse


If one looks around the map trade there are of course other successful business models, such as the retail galleries of Crouch Rare Books and Martayan Lan, the relatively pure internet play of Kevin Brown at Geographicus, or Barry Ruderman’s hybridized approach.  But the boutique model of Boston Rare Maps has suited me and my family well.


A changing marketplace

So, to the topic at hand.  I should first define my key term: By “map trade,” I refer to the few dozen dealers here in the United States whose core business is marketing and selling antique maps to private collectors and institutional collections. I also refer to the many dozens of dealers in this country for whom maps are a significant component of a more broad-based business.  Much of my argument will I suspect apply to dealers abroad, but as an Americanist I am best qualified to comment on the domestic market.

I want to set the table with a quote from 1928.  This is Lawrence Martin, Chief of the Library of Congress Map Division, writing to Max Farrand, Research Director at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.  He writes about über collector Henry Huntington’s purchase of a particular item. I quote:

“I have a suspicion that Mr. Huntington paid too much for it and that’s worth pausing upon, to show how little you (or we at Library of Congress) can trust dealers, how map and atlas prices are going up, and the necessity of your being cautious at the Huntington Library about future purchases without professional advice.” (from a report by Lawrence Martin to Max Farrand, Oct. 6, 1928)


I bring this quote up to make the point that there has probably always been a certain amount of tension between collectors and dealers, one inherent to all commerce.  At its most elemental, the map trade is about buying and selling at a profit, which means that dealers are usually in the position of trying to maximize their profit, while collectors are trying to get the best deal possible.

Add to this the occasional, well-publicized, and earth-shaking breaches of trust by rogue members of the map trade, most famously E. Forbes Smiley. Such betrayals of course have immediate and painful effects, but they also leave behind residual distrust that can taint the map trade as a whole.

But I would also argue that in recent years the collector-dealer relationship has come under new forms of pressure, all connected in some way with that omnipresent and increasingly omniscient monster we call the Internet.  Now, I would be the last to deny the Internet’s many benefits: On a personal note, it’s been a great boon for me and my family, enabling me to build a business with national exposure while working from a home office in a small country town.

That said, the Internet has transformed the market for antique maps in ways that have been detrimental to the collector-dealer relationship.

First: e-commerce.  To be fair, who isn’t a fan of the frictionless experience of ordering on line, whether it’s tickets to Hamilton, toner cartridges on Amazon or a new treasure from one’s favorite map dealer?

And yet I believe these arms-length transactions involving little more than a quick email and a credit card run the risk of de-valuing the collector-dealer relationship. In aggregate, it has become more transaction-based and less of a partnership, more focused on “the deal” than on the development of a mutually-beneficial long-term connection.  Indeed, it seems that the experience of buying a map from a dealer at times differs little from the experience of buying on Amazon, or eBay.

I acknowledge that these transactions can be satisfying for those involved: Collectors get maps to build their collections, and dealers hopefully turn a reasonable profit.  But I will argue later that these relatively friction-less transactions may come with hidden-but-substantial opportunity costs.

There is another dynamic created by the Internet, more subtle than the distancing effect of e-commerce.  Historically, the collector-dealer relationship was asymmetrical, in the sense that dealers had vastly more information at their disposal than their clients. This included not just historical and carto-bibliographic knowledge, but also market data about the historic pricing, rarity and current availability of maps.  This disparity was a direct result of dealers’ large investment in research libraries, their networks of relationships in the map trade and related fields, and their many years of experience observing the market.  And it gave them a large advantage when it came to sourcing, pricing and negotiation.

Today however, the wealth of information available on the Internet has much reduced this asymmetry.


When I offer a map to a client, with a quick Google search he or she can get a feel for its rarity, whether there are others on the market and if so at what price, and whether yet others were sold at auction in recent years.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 10

A modest investment in the Antique Map Price Record or RareBookHub would yield even more such data.  Likewise, anyone willing to follow a few aggregator sites such as ABE Books, LiveAuctioneers, or Invaluable can monitor efficiently a large share of the maps on the market. This is of course a great boon for collectors: It offers hitherto-unimagined access to material available for purchase, reams of data with which to make more informed decisions about value, and seemingly limitless research resources. In economists’ terms, it has become a more efficient market.

But this shift also greatly complicates the collector-dealer relationship, creating new potential for distrust, conflict and even skepticism about the value of the map trade.  It is not infrequent, for example, that I learn that I was bidding against a valued client at auction, thus either driving up their purchase price or depriving them of a much sought-after map. Likewise, I have more than once had the experience of offering a client something really special, only to have them say, “Isn’t that the map you bought for X at auction Y?” In fact, I have lost at least one client in a similar circumstance:

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 11

This is “The Way of Good and Evil,” an allegorical map from 1862, intended to strike fear into young people and keep them on the straight and narrow.  It’s wonderful, but also extremely rare: To my knowledge there are only four known impressions.  At any rate the client had been seeking a copy for years and was delighted to purchase it from me. But after the fact he found the sales record on the web site of the out-of-the-way auction where I had purchased it.  He begrudged me the profit, and has not spoken to me since.

So a fraught background indeed, marked by the tensions inherent in a commercial relationship, the tendency of e-commerce to encourage arms-length transactions, and a shift in the historically asymmetric relationship between collectors and dealers.  And yet I will argue that the map trade has more to offer than ever.  Collectors today are, in general, strapped for time and deluged with both information and buying opportunities.  Under these circumstances members of the map trade can be valuable partners in navigating a crowded and noisy marketplace.


The “value proposition” of the map trade

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 13I think of the map trade’s contribution as its “value proposition,” a concept usually deployed in the corporate world. A firm’s value proposition is that distinct set of benefits it brings to the table, which together make it more attractive than its competitors.

For example, Amazon’s value proposition is its ability to offer an unrivaled selection of products cheaply and deliver them quickly. An industry or sector can also have a value proposition:

That of electric car makers such as Tesla rests on their cars being more energy efficient and cleaner-running than those propelled by fossil fuels.

Likewise the map trade, at least at its best, has a value proposition, one that distinguishes it from other distribution models such as auction houses or on-line venues like eBay.  This value proposition consists of a unique basket of services, including but hardly limited to the following:

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 14

I will address each of these in turn, but before doing so I offer a couple of caveats.  First, my goal here is not an exhaustive catalog of all the ways the map trade adds value. Nor is it my goal to put the map trade on a pedestal.  Map dealers are people, and, like people in general, their abilities, personalities, and moral constitutions vary substantially. My observations are meant to be descriptive of the map trade at its best.



It is true, as I discussed earlier, that the Internet has made more maps more available to more collectors than ever before. In this regard, the information asymmetry between collectors and dealers has certainly declined.  But it is still very real.

Short of becoming full-time dealers themselves, collectors simply can’t replicate the average map dealer’s commitment to monitoring the marketplace for buying opportunities. Nor can they replicate dealers’ marketing efforts, typically including a mix of internet presence, shows and fairs, and press exposure, all of which enable them to buy much inventory privately and quietly. This material usually originates in the private sector but also come from institutional deaccessions, the process whereby libraries and museums sell out-of-scope or duplicate collection items.

Dealers are thus vital intermediaries, well positioned to help collectors sort through the “noise” in the marketplace and find material in their field of interest, but also well positioned to source material before it even hits the open market.

I can illustrate with an example from my own experience.  Two years ago I was invited to visit a historical society in a suburban Massachusetts town.  Their Board wanted an assessment of the map collection, with an eye toward what to keep and what might be deaccessioned. The visit was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment, at least until the very end.  As I worked through literally the last shelf of maps, feeling rather low in spirits, I came on a piece of badly-browned linen rolled as tight as a cigar, unpromising in the extreme. But a careful unrolling revealed one of my personal Holy Grails, John Groves Hales’ monumental 1814 Map of Boston.

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This is one of the great black tulips of Boston mapping, arguably the most magnificent early map of the city. It was a wreck, but restoration brought it back to what you see here.

The map is now in the hands of a private collector of American city and town plans, with whom I have worked for more than a decade.  I had briefly considered offering the map on the open market, but he might not have forgiven me for failing to offer him something so obviously in his wheelhouse.


Vetting and warrantying material

A couple of months ago I got a great bargain on a small lot of First World War posters at an on-line auction.  Here’s the image of one of the posters on the auction web site, along with a verbatim of the condition description.

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A week or two later, this is what came in the mail.  Not exactly as described!

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This anecdote points to a second facet of the map trade’s value proposition, namely the vetting and warrantying of material. For the trade in antiqe maps to function, buyers need a very high level of confidence in the material they are purchasing. So let’s say you’re a collector of Chicago maps, and someone offers you Joshua Hathaway’s map of the Chicago with the School Section, Wabansia, and Kinzie’s Addition, the first printed map of the city.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 20


This great rarity was published in 1834.

Aside from the question of “Can I afford this?,” a wary buyer should have at least three questions:

First, is the map original rather than a reproduction or an outright fake?

Second, what is the physical condition, and has it been accurately described?

And finally, is there anything about the map that raises red flags about its provenance?


Incidentally, two of these questions are salient in the case of the Hathaway map: First, it was printed lithographically, and it can be very difficult to differentiate a period lithograph from a modern reproduction.  Second, given the rarity and high value of the map, one should be particularly alert to issues of provenance.

It is of course the responsibility of the map trade to allay collectors’ concerns by providing clear, empirically-based answers to these three questions. Dealers may do this in a purely consultative role, or when offering their own stock for sale.  In the latter case, they must stand by their material, providing a lifetime warranty in the event that problems emerge down the road. Indeed, the Code of Ethics of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, of which I and many of my American colleagues are members, requires us to do just that.

Thus, the map trade, or at least the map trade at its best, provides collectors with a valuable and reassuring warranty: We, not our clients, bear the risk if something is not as represented, even if our error was made in good faith. A good analogy here might be the title insurance home buyers must purchase, without which banks would refuse to issue mortgages, and the housing market would grind to a halt.

This brings to mind an experience I had a few years ago.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 21This is the Magnetic Atlas, a misguided attempt by American scientist John Churchman to use magnetic variation of the compass as a tool for determining longitude.  Published in 1790, it’s an important example of early American scientific ambitions, and a great rarity of 18th-century American mapmaking.  This example was owned for the better part of two hundred years by a venerable academic institution, whose name many of you would know.  Some twenty years ago a new Director summarily decided to clean house and de-accession items from the collection.  But in this case, by “de-accession” I mean throw in a dumpster… literally.

The map was only saved because it was rescued by the building manager.  He plucked it out of the dumpster and kept it at his home for a decade and a half. He eventually reached out to me, told me the story, and offered the map for sale.  The whole thing sounded ludicrous, like a tale of insider theft if there ever was one.  But after a month of phone calls and emails, I was able to confirm his story and the de-accession, get a letter to that effect on the institution’s letterhead, and purchase the map.

This vetting and warrantying is more vital than ever. With the advent of the Internet, collectors are awash in buying opportunities, not just on dealer web sites, but from hundreds of auction houses, not to mention aggregators such as eBay, Live Auctioneers, and so on.  Only a few of these venues are willing and able to offer either the vetting or guarantees provided by the map trade. There are exceptions, of course, including the well-established, specialized map auction houses.  But try contacting an eBay seller with your concerns about a library stamp on the back of a map you’ve just purchased, or getting Live Auctioneers to take responsibility for a 19th-century lithograph that turns out to be a photo-reproduction.



A third piece of the map trade’s value proposition is research. Now, it’s hardly a revelation that dealers research and describe their maps. But as I discussed earlier, the advent of the internet has yielded an explosion of research material available at our fingertips, quickly and cost effectively.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 23

Even a short list includes on-line illustrated catalogs such as that of the David Rumsey Collection and, closer to home Digital Newberry; databases of historical map prices such as the Antique Map Price Record; and primary and secondary material available via the HathiTrust, Google Books, Readex, Newspapers.com and elsewhere. The list goes on, and seems to grow weekly.  All this in addition, of course, to the raft of printed reference works that have appeared in recent years.

The availability of all this material has raised the research bar ever higher. Dealers—not all, but many—are putting ever more effort into placing material in its broader geographical, historical, artistic or other context. An indicator of this shift can be seen in the print and on-line catalogs issued by the map trade.  Consider two treatments of Peter Goos’s iconic Paskaerte van Nova Granada separated by 45 years.

Now, here it is described in a 1972 catalog issued by Ken Nebenzahl, a giant of the late 20th-century map trade:

Note that the catalog is roughly 4” x 6”.  The listing features a thumbnail image, the basic bibliographic information, a few references to the literature, and a one-line “elevator speech” about the map’s significance. Compare that to a 2018 listing of the same map on the web site of Barry Ruderman, which is probably ten times as long.

Thus, at its best the map trade offers not merely an old map printed on a piece of paper, but an artifact that has been vetted for authenticity, condition and provenance and complemented by a body of research that will enrich the owner’s experience.  This is a kind of value that one can’t find at an estate sale, on eBay, or all but a handful of auction houses. In fact, as a regular eBay user, I increasingly see sellers plagiarizing descriptions from my and my colleagues’ web sites!


Making connections

Another vital contribution of the map trade is that it excels at making connections.

The world of antique maps is often described as an ecosystem, albeit one consisting of just three species: collectors, curators and the institutions they represent, and dealers. To this list you could if you like add a fourth, namely the small number of auctioneers specializing in maps, such as Caleb Kiefer at Swann, Eliane Dotson of Old World Auctions, and Julian Wilson at Christies.

Savvy dealers view themselves, not as the sum of their inventory, but as inhabitants of this antiquarian ecosystem.  Indeed, it’s a dealer’s job to know everyone in his or her piece of the ecosystem, and to work constantly to strengthen those ties: After all, at the most rudimentary level, the more people we know, the better our sources of material and the larger our client base.  Thus at its best the map trade is ideally positioned to help make constructive connections between others in the ecosystem.  We have, as the saying goes, both means and motive.

This happened some years ago when Paul Cohen of Cohen & Taliaferro introduced New York collector Richard Brown to the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.  Richard is now a board member, and much of his extraordinary collection of French & Indian and Revolutionary War material may now be viewed through a portal on the Leventhal web site.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 26

And here’s an example of the kind of material from Richard’s collection now available for viewing.

This is a spectacular full-color copy of the so-called “Anti-Gallicans Map,” issued in London in 1755 as the French and Indian War was heating up. Its rhetorical intent was to support Great Britain’s expansive territorial claims in North America while highlighting the threat posed by France’s own imperial ambitions.

Now, these connections often have nothing directly to do with commerce, but can still be fruitful for all involved.  So for example a beginning collector might appreciate tips about visiting local map collections.  An advanced collector eager to make their collection accessible on-line would do well to be connected with an institution that has a strong digital infrastructure.  For their part, institutional collections benefit from introductions to private collectors looking to “give something back,” as donors, lenders to exhibitions, and/or board members.


Identifying new directions

Finally, the map trade also excels at identifying and disseminating new fields of collecting.  This brings to mind the words of former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld:

“…as we know there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”


Once you penetrate the Rumsfeldian syntax, it’s particularly apt.  Every collector has “known unknowns,” unanswered questions that have been nagging at them:  For instance, how many copies of the John Melish’s Map of Illinois were printed, and will I ever find one?

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 29But for those in our ecosystem of antique maps, what’s more exciting are the “unknown unknowns.” These are the new opportunities for collecting and scholarship that no one even knows about. And I would argue that the map trade is uniquely positioned to contribute in this area.  After all, every year we see lots of maps, of all sorts, and we’re always interested in finding new opportunities for distinctive branding and, of course, profit.  To use the phrase once more, we have both means and motive.

This push for novelty and new collecting fields benefits everyone: It gives collectors opportunities to enrich their particular interests and find new ones. And it helps institutions identify unappreciated areas of their collections, expand their collecting missions, and bring new resources to students and scholars.

One of the best places to witness this entrepreneurial dynamic is at the Miami Map Fair, which takes place annually on the first weekend of February… unless the Super Bowl is in town.  It’s the largest event of its kind in the country and attracts most of the top dealers from the United States and abroad.  Here are some photos that I think capture well how the flavor of the Fair has changed.  This is my stand in 2005, one of my first years at the Fair.

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 30


As you can see, back in the old days—like maybe 10-15 years ago—the focus was on the classics, the great maps of the 15th through the first half of the 19th centuries.  By contrast, were you to have walked the floor of the Fair recently, you would have seen lots of the classics, but also pictorial maps, advertising maps, thematic maps, propaganda maps and the like, many printed within the last century.  Here for example, is Philip Curtis of the Map House of London, with a display of “war maps” that caused quite a stir in 2016:

Why Maps Still Matter - Slide 31


This sort of experimentation sometimes results from engagement with our clients.  A great example is the relatively recent interest in what collector P.J. Mode calls “persuasive maps”… maps trying to shape the thought and / or actions of their audience.  By way of an example,  here is an image of my all-time favorite persuasive map, the Porcineograph:

This is the only map I know of that combines sanitary hog farming, a celebration of pork-based cuisine, and post-Civil War reconciliation in a single, exuberantly nutty image.  It features this central map of the United States in the form of a pig,


surrounded by plaques listing the favorite pork dish of each state.


It’s hard to make out, but this is the plaque for Illinois, whose citizens were apparently partial to “prairie hens, berries, corn-fed pork, and lager.”

In any event, the newfound interest in persuasive maps is an example of the map trade and a collector collaborating: P.J. has been acquiring them voraciously for well over a decade.  Along the way, he has managed to get several of us—me in particular—deeply interested in the genre. Now, inspired by PJ, I and others are looking everywhere we can to identify new fields of persuasive mapping and develop our clients’ interest therein.

While we are on the subject of persuasive maps, I’d like to mention that for the past several years P.J. has been collaborating with the Cornell University Library to develop the Persuasive Cartography web site.

This site includes hundreds (eventually thousands) of high-resolution images and curatorial notes written, and continually updated, by P.J. himself. I recommend it highly. It’s a lot of fun, a great research tool, and a fine example of the wealth of material now available in the digital domain.


So, to review: at its best the map trade brings to the table a unique value proposition, one that is relevant no matter where collectors are at in their collecting “life cycle.”  These include:

  • Sourcing
  • Vetting and warrantying
  • Research
  • Making connections
  • Identifying new directions


I should mention that this list is in no way comprehensive, but time prevents me from exploring other ways members of the map trade can add value.  I will briefly mention one other, which merits a talk all its own:


If you recall, earlier I read a provocative quote from Lawrence Martin, of the Library of Congress.  There he wrote of the importance of collectors accessing what he called “professional advice.”  In fairness, Martin preferred this advice be provided by curators and librarians, unsullied by commerce or other subjective considerations.  But because of their familiarity with both the material and the marketplace, members of the map trade have a vital role in providing such advice.  This can be of great value to collectors at all stages of their collecting careers, whether beginners wondering what to collect, or advanced collectors thinking about how to disburse their holdings by sale, auction and/or donation.



Time is running short, so let me recap. I began by describing some of the ways the Age of the Internet has affected the market for antique maps, and how this has fundamentally changed the relationship between collectors and dealers.  I focused in particular on the tendency of e-commerce to facilitate arms-length transactions, and the complications created in an era when dealers no longer have asymmetric access to information.

From there I made the case that, for all these issues, the map trade has a distinctive value proposition that, if anything is more valuable than ever. In short, I believe that the map trade will remain a vital contributor to the ecosystem of antique maps for many years to come.

Once again, my thanks to Sammy Berk for organizing the Map Fair, to the Newberry Library for hosting us, and to all of you for attending this afternoon.  Now I hope we can open the floor for questions, comments and suggestions.