2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
A Million-Dollar Map
Seven Figures for Seven Letters: AMERICA
Although most people collect maps for their own sake, we may dream that one day something in our collection that was purchased for a pittance will turn out to be worth millions. That’s what happened to a German book collector recently. Drinking coffee and reading his newspaper one morning, he saw an article about a rare map and realized that he had one that looked awfully similar. His small woodcut map of the world was arranged in jagged sections— called globe gores— designed to be cut out and glued onto a sphere to create a four-and-a-half-inch-diameter globe. The German collector’s example had already been cut out like that.
Photo Courtesy: Christie's
This world map by Martin Waldseemüller, the first to use the word “America,” sold for more than $1 million on June 8.
His globe gores turned out to be part of a set of materials first published in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller—a German cleric, scholar, cosmographer, and cartographer— and several assistants. In addition to the globe gores, they produced a large wall map and a booklet describing the maps. Waldseemüller’s world map was one of the first to include geographical features from the reports of the explorers who sailed west from Europe after Columbus. He had examined the accounts of Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages to South America between 1497 and 1504, and he used that information  to draw the east coast of the continent. He had no accounts of the geography beyond the Caribbean, so the coasts of most of North and South America were pure guesswork. Waldseemüller honored Vespucci’s discoveries by labeling the new continent America, a name that stuck. The name was actually suggested by Waldeseemüller’s assistant, Matthias Ringmann, who wrote the introduction to the map, called the Cosmographiae Introductio: “There is a fourth quarter of the world which Amerigo Vespucci has discovered and which for this reason we can call ‘America’ or the land of Americo.” This was the first use of the word “America” on any printed document, and Waldseemüller’s use of it was l.ikewise its first on any map.
There were, until our coffee-drinking collector realized what he had, only three sets of the globe gores known to exist. A number of copies of Cosmographiae survived, but the first gores were not discovered until 1871. That map now resides in the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The two other copies are in Germany, one at the Bavarian State Library, and the other in a public library in the small town of Offenbach, having been found bound into an unrelated library book in 1992. The German collector’s map was put up for auction at Christie’s in London and sold on June 8 for slightly more than a million dollars (£545,600 or $1,002,267, including the auction premium), a price just below the low estimate. The buyer was Charles Frodsham and Co. Ltd., a London antique-clock dealer. The three other known copies are on full sheets of paper, so the fact that this set was cut out undoubtedly kept bidders from reaching deeper into their pockets.
The survival of maps in general  seems to be inversely correlated with size; the larger the map, the rarer it tends to be. A good example of this is Waldseemüller’s wall map, which measures eight feet by four feet. The Library of Congress purchased the only known copy four years ago from a German collector. It survived because its twelve separate sheets were bound into a portfolio that had been put together by German globe maker Johannes Schöner. At some point, the portfolio was acquired by the library of the Castle of Wolfegg, at Wurttenburg, and was discovered in 1901 by a Jesuit historian, Josef Fischer. Luckily, by this time the map was old enough to be recognized as valuable. Following years of negotiation and diplomacy, the Library of Congress acquired the map and an export license at a cost of $10 million.
The Library of Congress paid $10 million for this wall map by Waldseemüller.
Photo Courtesy: Library of congress
After such a high-profile purchase, made with $5 million appropriated by Congress and a matching amount raised from private donors, some have questioned whether the map is actually a first printing from 1507. The watermarks on the paper match another map more definitively dated eight years later (indeed, Christie’s gave a 1515 date for the Library of Congress map in its press materials). While there is no historical evidence of a second printing of the wall map, it is not inconceivable that the wood-block plates could have been reused at a later date. The question is somewhat academic since the Library of Congress’s map is one of a kind, but for collectors keen to own what has been called the “birth certificate of America,” a later date for the wall map would mean the globe gores are the sole surviving first appearance of the word “America” on a map.
When I asked Dr. John Hébert, chief of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress, for his view, he dismissed the later date as speculation and vigorously defended the 1507 date for the library’s wall map. He pointed out that the watermarks are only on the descriptive text pasted onto the corners of the maps and that the dating of the watermarks themselves is far from certain. This is true. The dating of the watermarks is derived from the fact that they are the same as those on another Waldseemüller world map, called the Carta Marina, which has been more positively dated to 1515. The two maps could have the same watermark simply because the printer had a lot of paper with this watermark and used the same paper for both maps.
The watermark evidence from the globe gores adds to the confusion. The four copies are printed on three different papers. The watermarks on the globe gores sold at Christie’s and on the University of Minnesota copy have been dated by some to 1526, not 1507, but that later date is not certain either. All of which illustrates the difficulty dating old maps, and the uncertainty likely contributed to a lower-than-estimated auction result for the globe gores. The Library of Congress declined to bid because of it, and others may have as well.
But what is the special appeal of the Waldseemüller maps, other than simply being the first to name America? The answer lies in a few other “firsts” claimed by the maps. They are the first printed maps to depict a North American continent in the western Atlantic and the first to show the New World as an entirely separate continent. They are also the first maps to depict all of South America and the Pacific Ocean beyond, or at least a separate ocean between Asia and America, an ocean that was not physically discovered until 1513 by Vasco Núñez de Balboa, when he crossed the Isthmus of Panama. The existence of the Americas dispelled Christopher Columbus’s hope that there was an easy ocean route to the riches of the East and the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe. As Ferdinand Magellan was to discover in 1519, getting around the Americas required a long and arduous voyage. Emerging from the strait he found at the tip of South America on an unusually peaceful day, he named the ocean he found what it was not: the Pacific.
Map makers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries usually had to work with incomplete information and often resorted to what passed as logic to depict what they thought ought to be, and Waldseemüller’s group, following Vespucci, thought that there ought to be another continent before the coast of Asia was reached. It was probably little more than an intuitive leap but they had the fortune to have guessed correctly. All other maps up to that point either had shown America as an eastern extension of Asia or had conveniently run the western edges off the maps, thus evading the question.
Waldseemüller’s maps, with as many as 1,000 copies distributed, influenced many later cartographers, and had far-reaching geographical implications. His map was the embodiment of such a revolutionary new notion of the world that, on that basis alone, it certainly qualifies as a landmark map. The fact that so few survive, whatever their actual dates, virtually guaranteed that one offered for sale would produce a jaw-dropping price.
Derek Hayes is a historian and author of America Discovered and other award-winning historical atlases, books that use original maps for illustration.