Is my Antique Map Authentic? Breaking Down the Rare and Antique Map Authentication Process

How can I tell if my antique map is authentic? This is one of the most common questions we are asked. Most people who ask this question are looking for a quick checklist that they can run through to determine authenticity. Unfortunately, authentication is rarely so simple. Most experts and experienced dealers in old maps and prints can identify a fake or reproduction at a glance, leading the uninitiated to assume that authentication is an easy and straight forward process. The facts are far different. The quick glance of a map expert is comparable to a master chef tasting his signature soup. In a single sip he is able to identify which spices are needed to perfect the dish. The chef is able to perform this remarkable feat by accessing a vast and partially subconscious database of experiences and tastes. Much in the same way, the map or print expert is able to instantly assess a variety of factors including printing style, paper type, coloration factors and production style. He or she compares them with what he knows the map or print should look like based upon numerous examples of the same or similar maps he may have previously encountered. In this post I will attempt to break down some of this process.

Before going into greater depth regarding how the authenticity of an antique map is determined, I will attempt to highlight what sort of fakes and reproductions are out there. Rarely in life is the answer this or that, rather, it usually lies somewhere in-between. The same is true of antique maps. There is a broad spectrum between absolutely fake and absolutely authentic. An “absolutely authentic” map is an original map printed as dated (or if not physically dated, when it should have been based upon what it is) with old or no color. From the 15th through the 18th centuries, many maps were printed in black and white and colorized by or at the request of the purchaser. In this case “old color” is the term. In most cases old color is more desirable than new color. Even so, many maps have been colorized in comparatively recent times. Sometimes this work serves simply to refresh the original color and sometimes the new color work is more comprehensive. Good quality color work almost always enhances the value of map even if it has been added recently. Some maps have been printed and reprinted over a long period of time. A map originally printed in 1700 for example may have been reprinted 100 or more years later and still be an antique. With regard to these, some are produced from their original plate while others are lithographic productions. While these later printings are indeed reproductions, many are still old enough to be considered antiques in their own right and have considerable value. Next are modern (within the last 100 years) high quality professional reproductions. While not authentic maps, a few are made to the highest standards using recreated printing plates and old fashioned papers. Some of these are quite beautiful though few have serious value. Next are lower quality copies and reproductions commonly sold as tourist souvenirs and decorative pieces. These have no value whatsoever. Standing slightly outside this spectrum are forgeries. Forgeries can be masterpieces in their own right, though few come close to this mark. Most of the fake maps that come our way are simply tourist items or professional reproduction of greater or lesser quality that confuse their owners.

When attempting to determine the authenticity of an antique map, the expert will evaluate the map’s overall style, the printing technique used, the paper type, the supposed date, color, and the map’s condition. While any one of these factors may set off an alarm that the map is less than what it seems, it is usually a composite of several factors that allows for full authentication. With that in mind, we will now address each of these individually.

The most notable aspect of a map tends to be its overall style. From the style of the map we can identify what it is attempting or supposed to be and from this we can get direction for the authentication process. Does the map conform to 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th century styles? Is it a atlas map, a folding map, a broadside, a wall map, or a nautical chart? Addressing this issue alone will often go a long way in identifying a contemporary reproduction. Many modern maps are made to look old by incorporating various elements particular to an earlier period – such as elaborate baroque title cartouches, sea monsters, compass roses, etc. An amalgam of different styles from different periods does not guarantee that map is fake, but it may raise flags for further investigation. Addressing these questions will also help significantly further down the road. A 19th century map will obviously look and feel different than a 16th or 17th century map. Once we have identified the period of production, we can begin to examine printing style, paper, color and other factors reflective of the printing period.

Map Type

Various types of map exhibit characteristics that, if lacking can lead one to speculate on authenticity.

Atlas Maps: Most antique atlas maps show evidence of binding into a book. These may include a discernible centerfold or, in the case of larger maps, multiple crisscrossing folds. Early maps were generally bound into books by applying glue along the centerfold and attaching the map to a flap of paper that was itself bound into the book with thread and glue. This technique allowed the map to fold open more easily. Most of the early glues used were highly caustic and centerfold damage and discoloration due to the glues is quite common. Fold lines also exhibit the most wear and often show signs of soiling and aging – but we will cover this further later in the article. A map without evidence of binding may suggest that the map is not authentic, but it may also simply be that this individual map was never bound or that it was side bound – where the effects of binding are limited to missing marginal areas.

Folding Maps: Folding maps were common from the 18th century onwards. These maps, made to be folded and pocketed are designed to be transportable. Most early folding maps have been dissected into panels and mounted on a backing material – usually linen. The earliest examples tend to be backed on a course sailcloth, while 19th century folding maps are often mounted on fine linen. With such maps, we can learn a lot by examining the backing. If an older map (pre 1810) is attached to exceptionally fine linen – something is usually wrong. Those folding maps that were not dissected and instead were bound into the backs of books and inside folders should exhibits signs of wear and use, including discoloration along the fold lines, wear, and soiling. Such maps usually also exhibit some glue damage and discoloration where they were originally attached to their binder – this is particularly the case with mid 19th century American material. While pristine examples do exist, it is highly uncommon and should be a flag for further study.

Wall Maps: Wall maps, like many folding maps, are almost universally mounted on linen or heavy sail cloth. Most exhibit extreme wear, flaking , and other damage due to their manufacture process which often included causing glues, paints, and varnishes. An example that does not exhibit certain conditional issues may suggest extensive restoration work – which is not in any way bad – but does bear note.

Broadsides and Nautical Charts: Occasionally one comes across a broadside or a nautical chart that was stored flat or rolled. While uncommon, these can often challenge many of the rules above. Such maps may resemble atlas maps, but may never have been folded or bound in any way. For such maps, we need to study the paper and other factors for authentication.

Printing Technique

Most early maps, prior to the mid 19th century, fall into three categories: manuscript, copper plate, and woodcut. Lithography, another common printing process, was developed in the 19th century.

Manuscript: The earliest maps, prior to the invention of printing in Europe, are almost all manuscript – that is hand drawn. These are exceptionally rare and characterized by the fact that each is a unique work of art. Manuscript maps will not exhibit a pressmark or any sign of printing. Generally speaking they will have been produced with meticulous care in European monastic libraries and tend to exhibit elaborate color work and other embellishments. Such maps are often drawn on broad sheets of vellum rather than more contemporary paper and usually require detail laboratory test of the inks used to fully authenticate. Later manuscript work, dating will into the 19th century, is more common and will follow different patterns according to the period. Often early nautical charts, produced at sea, and military charts, produced on the battlefield, tend to be manuscript work and are highly desirable. Around the late 18th and early 19th centuries the schoolboy or schoolgirl map begins to appear. These manuscript maps, drawn by school children as classroom exercises tend to be beautifully rendered whimsical productions. Often drawn on low quality papers with inferior and caustic inks, many exhibit considerable wear and aging such that many can look far older than they are.

Woodcut :Woodcut maps are among the first printed maps. The great woodcut cartographers include Munster and Waldseemuler among others. Woodcut style printing can generally be identified by the style of the engraving. Wood, being a soft medium, requires that the engraver use thicker lines. Also, because woodcut printing plates are less durable than metal plates, wear to the plate and smaller printing runs tend to be more common. Many woodcut maps do not exhibit a pressmark, as it is the raised area rather than the cut-away that is inked. This can make it more difficult to identify an original woodcut print, however, given other factors, not impossible. Generally speaking woodcut printing was abandoned for easier and more reliable copper plate printing techniques by the mid 1600s. However, in Asia, particularly China and Japan, woodcut printing, there called woodblock, persisted and developed well into the late 19th century.

Copper Plate: Copper plate maps, by far the most common, account for about 98% of all maps printed between 1500 and 1850. Unlike woodcut maps, most all copper plate maps exhibit a pressmark surrounding the image. This is because the printed area is the portions of the plate that have been “cut away” rather than those that protrude. Also unlike woodcut plates, copper plates allow for much finer engraving work and much larger printing runs. Because copper plates work through raised areas which hold the ink and press it into the paper, most maps printed by copper plate exhibit a discernible texture – especially on the thicker lines. One should be able to literally feel a depression where the copper plate pressed into the map. This is especially evident on thicker papers, which will take an impression better. Very thin papers will often exhibit signs of the printing process on the verso of the paper, with lettering and strong lines creating discernible raised areas.

In the case of both woodcut and copper plate prints the lack of a pressmark or texture on the verso is a strong sign that the map may be questionable, however, neither factor in and of themselves can be considered hard evidence. The pressmark may have been trimmed off the page by bookbinders and may have faded with time and exposure to certain conditions. Similarly, the lack of a texture to the printing itself either on the recto or verso may simply be evidence of a weak impression, not falsity.

Lithography: In the mid 19th century lithographic process printing begins to appear. This printing technique, which replaces copper or steel plates with lithographic stones is what copper plate printing was to woodcut printing in the 17th century. Lithographic process allowed for larger more stable printing runs. Lithographic prints do not have a characteristic pressmark nor do they leave a textured impression on the paper. In fact, basic lithographic printing of today is little different from lithography of old. Most maps printed from about 1850 onward are lithographs. The great American lithographic map makers include J. H. Colton, A. J. Johnson, S. A. Mitchell, and many others. Lithographic maps can be harder to authenticate than plate printed maps, however, there are other factors we can take into account.

Coronelli Globe Gore

Pressmark and laid paper from an 17th century Coronelli Globe Gore

The paper a map is printed on can provide a wealth of information to the experienced observer. The oldest maps are drawn or printed on vellum or treated animal skins. While the use of vellum is not a guarantee the map is authentic or even exceptionally old, it can be a factor in authenticating certain exceptionally rare pieces. In the mid 1400s paper became more common. The first good quality papers were made with macerated cotton or rag fiber which was then laid over a screen and dried – hence the term laid paper. This type of paper is generally thick and textured. When back-lit such papers commonly reveal a crisscross pattern of lines where the original screen would have left its mark. Some such papers may also bear watermarks as indicators of the paper’s manufacturer. In certain very special cases faulty, missing, or incorrect watermarks can be an indication of a fake, but this is not a universal rule. In the early 19th century woven papers began to appear. Woven papers – which include most of the papers we use today – are much smoother than laid paper and will not exhibit the same lay lines that appear in older papers. The 19th century also witnessed the introduction of wood pulp papers to the commercial printing market. Wood pulp papers naturally have a very high acid content and tend to brown, brittle, and deteriorate significantly with age. Thus there is at least one absolute guide we can offer, if a map purporting to be printed prior to the late 1700s is printed on woven or wood pulp paper, it is certainly a fake or at the very least a later reproduction.

We receive daily phone calls from individuals interested in getting more information about their map. When asked to describe their map, they tell us, “its old”. Our response, “How do you know, is it dated?” Theirs, “no, it just looks old”. One of the most common mistakes made by the map or print novice is the assumption that just because a map is in poor condition that it must be old and rare. While condition does play a factor in authentication, it is more with regard to specific elements than with the map’s overall state of decay. The overall condition of a map is mostly dependent on the kind of paper it was printed on, environmental factors it may have been exposed to, and the materials including inks, washes and glues, used in the maps manufacture.

Early cotton based papers and vellums are much more durable than woven wood pulp papers and consequently, maps dating to the 1600s or earlier are often in far better condition than maps printed in the late 19th century. Most cotton based laid papers are pH neutral, very thick, and extremely stable. Woven wood pulp papers on the other hand, due to their high acid content, will naturally degrade, brown, and brittle over time. The rate of this process, and hence the condition of the map, is strongly influenced by environmental factors. Exposure to mold, moisture, heavy use, rapid temperature changes, and sunlight can bring about a much quicker deterioration. In terms of authentication, a “look of age” on a map or print actually tells us very little.

There are however other conditional factors which can tell us a great deal. One is the centerfold, other fold lines, and the evidence of binding discussed earlier. If a map should have been folded and isn’t, it is a fair indication that something is wrong. In some cases the piece may have been professionally humidified and flattened by a restorer, but even in this case, there should be a sign of wear about where the folds should have been. It is almost impossible to fully erase stress marks acquired along fold lines that have been in place for centuries. Occasionally we have come across modern reproduction maps that have been folded in imitation of an original. In this case, a close examination of the fold line should reveal different types of stress. In the case of older maps, the paper will have actually relaxed and the fibers along the fold lines loosened somewhat. In a contemporary fold, the fibers may be stretched, but will in most cases remain strong and consistent.

Another factor we can take into account – this it is less important – is map color. Most early maps were issued without color. If color appears, it may have been added by the original buyer or at a later date. Original color is usually the most desirable and certain factors can help to identify it. Many old inks and color washes will degrade over time – this is especially common with blue and green inks. Degraded blue and green inks will often take on a brownish tone that will be apparent on both the recto and verso of the map. Other colors, if they are old, are less likely to bleed through to the verso. Modern color, due to changes in the paper itself, is more likely to bleed more universally onto the verso. Even so, expert colorists are masters at replicating the effect of aged color. Nor is modern color necessarily bad – if done well it is generally desirable – but must still be taken into account in the authentication process.

Assessing all of the above factors can enable an expert to identify a fake in almost all cases. There are however, a few examples of maps that deceive even master authenticators. These are often masterpieces of the forgers art. They are made using old papers, specially compounded inks, and printing plates perfectly replicated using three dimensional scanning The Vinland Maptools. For the most part, the construction of a fake map of this caliber is extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Consequently, it is rarely worth the effort. Nonetheless, it does happen. The raging debate on the authenticity of Yale’s Vinland Map is perfect example. Though submitted to any number of advanced tests and high tech authentication procedures, the debate continues, with both sides standing on well argued and valid points. We may never know if the Vinland map is authentic or not and it is a sad fact that such maps are extremely rare, so though such maps can challenge all authentication conventions, few will ever encounter one.

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