The Story of... How cartography found its way into collectors' hearts

It began with a wall painting, and has since evolved into something that that uses complex geographical date and can be found in every aspect of our lives.

The origins of cartography, the study and practice of making maps - or "mapping" - are traceable to the 7th millennium BC. Today, the oldest surviving world maps are Babylonian world maps dated to the 9th century BCE.

Naturally, much was left up to the imagination back then. One map shows Babylon on the Euphrates, surrounded by a circular landmass which includes Assyria, Urartu and a "bitter river". Another depicts Babylon as being further north from the centre of the world.

Cartography was further-evolved by the Greeks and Romans. In the 2nd Century AD, the a mathematician, astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus - known as Ptolemy in English - produced his own treatise on mapping, a definitive guide to how it should be done.

Henricus Hondius II's map of the world mixes reality with uncertain
geography and mythological elements. It will auction next Wednesday
priced at $6,000-7,000


His influence would be felt for centuries - as shown in this map by Henricus Hondius II (1597-1651), pictured above, with mixes recognisable geography with mythological elements. It also features a small portrait of Claudius Ptolemy in one corner.

Like Ptolemy, cartographers like Hondius were also sketchy on some aspects of Earth's geography. The above example depicts California as an island while Terra Australis Incognita, Latin for "the unknown land of the South", can be seen faintly. It appeared on European maps from the 15th to the 18th century.

Also fascinating about these maps is their blurring of geography and mythology. The above example, for instance, depicts Apollo driving the Sun's chariot across the sky; Aeros, the goddess of Air, surrounded by clouds and birds; while "water" is represented by a Siren and sea monsters.

It should also be noted that maps sometimes contained deliberate errors, either as propaganda or as a "watermark" to help the copyright owner identify incidences of plagiarism, or simply leave his own mark on the work.

Other pioneers included European Johann Schoener, with his idea of depicting the world as a globe, or spherical map. An extremely rare example of his work, only the third to appear at auction in the past 30 years, sold for $50,000 (including Buyer's Premium) at Bloomsbury, earlier this year.

The most expensive Chinese map in the world

The oldest extant Chinese maps come from the State of Qin, dated back to the 4th century BC during the Warring States period. From this period, "star maps" by Su Song, relying on equidistant cylindrical projections, represent the oldest existent maps in printed form.

A 1602 print of Matteo Ricci's first world map written in Chinese -
today the most valuable Chinese map in the world (Click to unfold)


As with Western maps, some of China's more fascinating cartographic specimens date to the 15th century, and still captivate collectors of rare maps and manuscripts to this day.

These include the most expensive Chinese map in the world, requested by the Emperor Wanli and created on rice paper by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest (pictured top right) who brought his Western perspective of the world to Chinese rulers and intellectuals.

Ricci's most famous map dates to 1602, and is currently held by the University of Minnesota (you can find a full report and video here).

Considering the era, the map shows much of the world in surprising detail, notably in its depiction of the Americas, which the Chinese were generally unfamiliar with at the time.

Not that today's mapmakers would have any such dilemmas. As the modern advancements like Google Earth leave no stone unturned, maps by the likes of Johann Schoener are becoming increasingly treasured by collectors and investors alike.


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