Look, we get it. Antique maps can be expensive and they aren’t exactly a life’s necessity. But let me make the case for why collecting maps can be an enriching and fascinating pursuit.
Antiques hold an imaginative power of association through their history. With age, they gather a story from the times and places they have been. A map published in 18th century France, like a piece of authentic Louis XV furniture, has a history: it has survived revolutions and wars as well as the every-day dangers of accident and decay.
Personally, maps help me understand the story of my home city of San Francisco. A reproduction of the 1849 William Eddy map of San Francisco shows the city’s development, but the original document is its history, an official record eagerly studied in cities across the East Coast by government representatives, businessmen, and ship captains, all curious about the new urban society arising across the continent. And examining an original 1885 anti-Chinese map of the city’s Chinatown, complete in its report, shows just how complex history can be.
Antique maps are evocative. We must try to imagine the story of each individual map — how it survived for decades or centuries, the different hands through which it passed, and the dangers it survived. These dangers, of course, have destroyed many original works from the past, contributing to the rarity of those that survive.
Objects can also carry imaginative power from their associations in time and place. This association, of course, could involve something dramatic — like a baseball that happens to be part of a historic play. But for antique maps, the association is likely to be more straightforward (although no less powerful): where we grew up, have lived or traveled, or a particular passion in history or literature.
A person interested in, for example, Victorian England, may wish to acquire artifacts of that age. Such personal interests combine well with collecting because the collectible objects are more meaningful to the collector, and because the associated knowledge helps the collector make better choices about what is worth collecting.
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin famously argued that each original work of art had an “aura” — an authenticity related to its time and place. Benjamin was interested in separating original works from reproductions. It is precisely this aura and authenticity that makes antiques special. A reproduction has none of the “aura” of the original work, none of its imaginative power.