It’s the intact atlases that fetch the headline-grabbing prices, whereas single maps sell for much less, topping out in the six figures for the rarest, most historically significant examples. “Atlases are a good place to park money,” advises Glazer. A complete suite of maps from the first printed atlas, a 1477 Italian edition of the maps of second-century cartographer Ptolemy, of which only 31 known copies exist, sold a Sotheby’s New York in 1994 for $409,500; in October 2006 at Sotheby’s London, another copy of the atlas fetched $3.9 million, a record sale for an atlas — and a more than tenfold increase in value. A 16th-century atlas of England and Wales by the early British cartographer Christopher Saxton (bound with an independently valuable set of maps and plates by Giovanni Battista Boazio) sold at Sotheby’s in March 2007 for $1.3 million; three copies of the atlas sold for $165,000 each prior to this, and one sold in 1957 for $2,000, or $15,880 in today’s dollars. “The great things, the scarce atlases, are making astronomical gains,” says Selby Kiffer, maps specialist for Sotheby’s New York, “and the routine material is plugging ahead at a slower rate.” Meanwhile, a rare hand-colored map of the United States from 1784 sold at Christie’s for $2.1 million in December 2010 — three times its high estimate …
If you were to compile a list of blue-chip map investments, those based on the writings of Ptolemy, many printed in 15th-century Italy, would be high on it. “They’re the first things a collector should have,” says [Nick] Martineau [a maps specialist in Christie’s London office]. So are Willem Blaeu, Abraham Ortelius, and Gerardus Mercator, argues Glazer, referring to the great trio of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish cartographers. Their intact printed atlases are the most prized, followed, generally, by single maps. Double-hemisphere world maps and maps of North America, Virginia, and New England are especially popular.
Then there are considerations of geographic popularity. “Nantucket is going to sell for way more than most other places,” says Glazer, “… Maps of London outprice those of Manchester; North American beat South American maps…”