Maps and atlases of times past were works of art. They were drawn on expensive materials, with lots of tiny details that were different depending on the cartographer. Those details were cartographers’ signatures in a way and were one of the differentiation factors that put some of them in front of the others. Mapping styles were also unique for different cartographers, not in the way of projections they used but in the sense of unique visual styles they’ve used for drawing maps. They added to each map’s uniqueness, along with the aforementioned unique visual details.
The precision wasn’t that much important because most maps were indeed considered works of art and many displaced paintings, hanging proudly on walls of the rich as prized possessions. Times changed but many antique maps are still greatly valued and still considered works of art, which they indeed are. Many are found in museums or private collections across the world and some of them were sold for staggering amounts at auctions, a couple ones passed the magic million-dollar mark. Today we will explore the most expensive maps in history, learn their value and how they’ve got so expensive in the first place.
Map of the World by Vesconte Maggiolo - $10,000,000
Portolan charts were maps used by seafarers that had extremely (for the time) detailed coastlines along with port locations and poor (or nonexistent) inland details. In fact, most portolan charts featured blank inland areas. They were used during the Middle Ages and only a handful survived. Today there are about 130 of those unique maps left in the world and one of those is officially the most expensive map of all time.
It’s a portolan map of the world drawn by Italian seafarer Vesconte Maggiolo and it dates back to 1531. The map shows the whole known world of the time and is the first to depict the New York harbor. Of course, this was before the Americas were colonized and New York area was marked as ‘Angouleme,’ which was the handle if Francis I, French King is also known as ‘Francis of Angouleme.’ The map reached a price of $10 million back in 2016 when it was sold on a private auction.
Portolan Atlas of the World by Battista Agnese - $2,770,500
Next, we have another portolan chart, but this time it is a whole atlas. It was made in Venice, circa 1545 by Battista Agnese. It contains 30 pages and includes a number of charts.
The atlas includes portolan charts of the Pacific Ocean (with coasts of North and South America, some details regarding California and Yucatan, and a couple of island archipelagos), Atlantic ocean (with the coast of the Americas, Europe, and Africa), Indian Ocean (including coastlines of Africa, the Middle East, India and China), North Sea and Mediterranean (including most of coastlines of Western Europe), detailed charts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean with coastlines of Iberian peninsula along with Northern African coast and Canary Islands, along with multiple charts of Mediterranean sea and one chart depicting Black Sea coastline.
The atlas is one of the few portolan atlases that survived through the modern days relatively intact. It was sold back in 2012 on an auction of a private collection library for more than $2.7 million.
The Bologna Ptolemy by Giacomo D'Angelo da Scarperia - £2,140,000
This is the first illustrated edition of the famous Cosmographia (geography) by Ptolemy. It was first translated by Giacomo D'Angelo da Scarperia, an Italian humanist and illustrated by a group of mapmakers. The atlas was published in the city of Bologna on 23 June 1462.
The atlas includes 26 maps and it depicts the whole known world of the Classical Era. The original Ptolemy’s manuscript incorporates the whole geographical knowledge of the 2nd Century Roman Empire. The atlas was extremely important for the renaissance era Europe and this version by Giacomo D’Angelo was the first edition accompanied by illustrations (the maps were engraved and then printed) with 26 maps included in total.
The Bologna Ptolemy atlas was sold by Daniel Crouch, an art dealer based in London, for £2.14 million back in 2007. The atlas held the title of the most expensive atlas in the world for five years until Portolan Atlas of the World by Battista Agnese took its title.
A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America by Abel Buell - $2,098,500
This map was the most expensive single map for more than five years. The historical importance of the map is huge since this is the first map of the United States printed and published in the independent United States. This is also the first map copyrighted in the United States as well as the first map printed in the US to show the American flag.
The map was printed and published in 1784, just eight years after the Declaration of Independence. The map was extremely rare ever since it was published because only seven copies of the map were located since the first publication. The map was sold at an auction called Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana held on December 2010, for a little over $2 million.
Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (Map of China from 1602) - $1,000,000
Another map that holds great historical significance. The Map of China was the first Chinese world map to be drawn in the European mapmaking style. The reason for this is that the map itself was produced by the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci at the request of the Wanli Emperor.
The map is huge (1.5 meters by 3.7 meters), is drawn using a pseudocylindrical map projection, and is the first Chinese map to depict the Americas. Since it is a Chinese world map, China is at the center with Europe and Africa on the left and the Americas on the right. The map is relatively accurate regarding the continents of Asia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America, with the Australian continent along with many Pacific islands being depicted as parts of the famous hypothetical continent called Terra Australis Incognita.
There are just two well-preserved copies of the map in the world and one was purchased by the James Forb Bell Trust in December of 2009 for $1 million. This copy can be viewed at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.
Speculum Orbis Terrae by Johannes Metellus - £299,250
Jean Matal (also known as Johannes Metellus) was a mapmaker and cosmographer from France and he was one of the most famous cartographers of the mid-Renaissance period. His world atlas is extremely rare to find today and it includes a detailed depiction of the known world the time.
The copy that sold for almost 300,000-pound sterling is the first edition of the atlas that contains extremely rare maps of the North American continent along with maps of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the collection of maps of various islands.
The copy sold is known as the only copy of the famous atlas to contain the complete collection of maps created by Matal and, at the moment, it is considered the only copy in the world to feature the whole Matal’s map collection.
Grooten Atlas, oft Werelt Beschryving, in welcke 't Aertryck, de Zee, en Hemel by Johannes Blaeu - £177,500
This is an extremely well-preserved copy of the first Dutch edition of The Atlas Major, a monumental atlas made of nine volumes. Each map is colored and excellently preserved. The volumes contain detailed maps of Europe (with detailed maps of Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Portugal) along with maps of the Arctic region, Africa, America, and Asia. The copy was sold in 1999 for £177,500.
Theatrum orbis terrarium by Abraham Ortelius - £98,500
Theatrum orbis terrarium (Theatre of the Orb of the World) is the first true modern atlas of the world. The first edition was printed in 1570 and the atlas was created by the famous Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius.
The atlas was incredibly rich with maps, often regarded as a complete summary of the cartographic work in the sixteenth-century Europe. Ortelius wasn’t the original author of any of the 53 maps but what he did was praiseworthy.
He recreated every map so that each map found in the atlas could be of the same size and drawn in the same style. This was something previously unseen in cartography and, on top of recreating every map found in the atlas, Ortelius also provided descriptions for each map along with referring original creators of every map. One of the most famous maps that were included in Theatrum orbis terrarium was the world map by Gerardus Mercator.
There are many copies of the atlas found in museums and private collection but the most expensive one was sold almost £100,000.
Caertboeck vande Midlandtsche Zee by Willem Barentsz - £93,750
This atlas was used by seafarers who sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and this one was the first atlas of the Mediterranean by ship captains. What’s peculiar about this exact copy is that the original atlas got printed without charts but this French-language copy had both printed charts and sailing directions. The copy was sold in London in 2019 at the auction dubbed Beyond the Horizon: The Mopelia Collection of Fine Atlases and Travel Books.
Apollo 17 landing site map - $28,000
And last but not least in a map that cannot be called antique. As you’ve noticed every map and atlas found in the list are prized antique pieces but this one is interesting because it was a part of the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon, the last Apollo mission that landed on the Earth satellite.
The map in question was carried by the crew so they could find their way back to the landing module in case they get lost on the Moon. It contains the landing site along with the topographic depiction of the area near it. The most prized copy was sold for almost $30,000 back in 2011.