The answer to this question depends on your goals. If you simply want something to fill a blank wall, a reproduction might be your best approach.  

However, reproductions lack the aesthetic qualities of the original. Original authentic objects carry imaginative power from their associations in time and place. A mass-produced object, fundamentally indistinguishable from other members of its production run, will suddenly gain value through its association, as, for example, a baseball that happens to be used for a historic play.

For many, that association is powerful. Like a piece of authentic Louis XV furniture, a map published in the 18th century in France has a history: it has survived revolutions and wars along with the everyday dangers of accident and decay.

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin famously argued that original works of art had an “aura,” an authenticity related to its time and place. It is this aura, this authenticity, that makes antiques special. It is possible to buy a modern reproduction of an authentic antique. But that reproduction has none of the aura of the original work, none of its imaginative power.

Assessing whether a map is real or fake takes a trained eye. The first aspect to determine is how the map was printed. Woodblock cuts, copper or steel plate engravings, and lithographs are the most common printing methods. These types are relatively easy to recognize. A plate etching is precisely that: a motif etched in reverse and then pressed onto the paper. The paper must be of a certain thickness and quality to handle the force, and the printing process will leave an impression outside the map area.

In most cases, the impression is visible to the naked eye and can be felt by running your fingertips over it. When discerning a lithograph from a later offset print, using a strong magnifying glass is best. If the applied image consists of numerous tiny dots, it is an offset; lithographs will appear as a more coherent blob.

So, here are things to consider:
1. Is the paper appropriate to the age of the map?
2. Is the printing style correct? Is there a clear plate mark?
3. Check for obvious marks that it is a legal reproduction.

If it has a title or other large text, it is best to copy this carefully and google it. Most maps are multiples, meaning they have been produced in many copies, and so chances are that some collection, dealer, or auction house somewhere has handled it. This information will only give you a first impression, though, as some maps exist in many different states, which range considerably in value.

Maps speak to us about how humanity’s understanding of the world progressed. Some maps are appealing because they changed how we look at the world, while others are attractive because they reflect a single cartographer’s vision. It is hard to say which resonates more significantly on the market. If your map has age, is authentic, and does not figure a hundred times on eBay for $20, chances are your map might be worth something. Remember that only the rarest maps are very valuable, so even if you find something that looks like it comes with a high price tag, this may not always be the case. If you are in doubt, never hesitate to contact us. We are happy to provide you with a free and non-binding assessment.

Among our many areas of expertise, the following stand out: San Francisco, California, the American West, Colonial America, Railroad maps, the Northwest Passage, early exploration and mapping, and the scientific mapping of the Middle East.

Neatline is a member of the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers), IMCoS (International Map Collectors’ Society), the California Map Society, and others.

Neatline is an online boutique based in San Francisco.

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