Intrigued by a collection of beautiful old maps of Persia that Cameron’s father has entrusted to us, we recently sought the advice of Ed Grusnis, owner of The Antiquarium on Kirby Drive. Grusnis, who bought the shop from its founders in 2014, deals in vintage maps, as well as antique prints, globes, photos, atlases and other objects of historical, scientific and aesthetic interest.
We asked Grusnis for some advice on map collecting, and he offered several points for consideration.
Those starting a map collection may want to identify a theme for the collection. “A group of maps comprises a collection when there is a story of some sort that ties the maps together,” noted Grusnis. “Some potential themes for the budding collector could be maps of the Civil War, maps of Texas, railroad maps, maps related to oil exploration, maps from your ancestral country, maps from a certain cartographer, etc. There can be as many themes as there are collectors.”
What is the most popular area of map collecting in Houston? “Although we do sell many maps of Texas,” says Grusnis, “I would say the Western Hemisphere is the most popular. We have a number of collectors who have focused on this part of the world and have built extensive collections. After that, it would definitely be Texas, the South and then oil-and-gas-related – think Spindletop, Saudi Arabia and the North Sea.”
Grusnis recommends supporting a map collection with basic scholarship. If you’re interested in Texas maps, for example, the website of the Texas State Historical Association has an abundance of Texas map scholarship, as does the Texas General Land Office website. Collectors should also consider joining the Texas Map Society for knowledge and networking. Whatever your interest, take some time to distill and focus your knowledge by reading about the historical period that interests you.
Always buy what you like. Is it the historical back-story that fires your imagination? Is it having an artifact that is hundreds of years old? Is it the brief historical glimpse of an evolving understanding of a region or continent? Is it the visual appeal?
Ask questions. Everyone was once a beginner, notes Grusnis. Start a dialogue with a dealer and discuss your interests, price range and timetable for building a collection. Figuring out who you enjoy talking to and like working with is a big part of enjoying the collecting experience. Invest in relationships, not just maps. Remember that everyone makes mistakes. The only collector (and dealer) who makes no mistakes is the one who buys nothing. If you envision yourself building a collection, don’t be afraid to take some risk.
Invest in a good magnifying glass. Sometimes a map’s most interesting details are hidden in the fine print.
If you want to study your maps regularly, you may choose to have them matted and shrink-wrapped by a competent framer. Be sure the framer uses acid-free materials. Framing treatments should also be selected to protect as well as enhance a map. Have your maps framed to conservation standards using archival mats and backing.
What about old maps with stains? Such stains might result from water damage, oxidation of the paper, smoke, wax, mildew, even the oil on our fingers. A skilled paper conservationist can reduce or even eliminate many of these problems. (The Antiquarium offers such services.) Likewise, tears and creases can often be repaired.
What is the single biggest misconception people have about old maps? “That they are reproductions,” says Grusnis. “Many people are surprised at the quantity, quality, variety and prices of antique maps. Sure, we have maps that are five-figure investments, but we also have 100-year-old maps available for less than $100.”