Sotheby's: Important Atlases And Cosmographies
London Thursday 11 March

Hammer prices quoted (with 15% buyer's premium).

Sotheby's: Important Atlases And Cosmographies  London Thursday 11 March

Hammer prices quoted (with 15% buyer's premium).

The first major London atlas sale of the year, Sotheby's sale of 'Important Atlases And Cosmographies Property of a Gentleman' was composed of 85 lots, a very small number for a single sale, but with the pre-sale estimates totalling £1.1 (lower) to £1.5 million (upper estimate), sufficient to justify its own catalogue.  The items were an odd assemblage, with the principal nucleus being travel books and geographies of the Holy Land and Eastern Mediterranean, supplemented with a selection of world atlases and cosmographies, dating from 1482 to 1827, and a smaller group of sea-atlases and coasting pilots.  The important thing was that each section contained at least one really choice item to whet the appetite.

With so few items, Sotheby's took the opportunity to more fully illustrate the catalogue. The 85 items were described on 90 pages, with over half those pages given to illustration.  An interesting innovation was a brief introductory essay, describing the more important items in a general context, a device apparently welcomed by the less knowledgeable collector.

Sotheby's took the unusual decision to hold the sale earlier in the year than normal, so the sale was very much in a lacuna in the calendar.  However, this decision, coupled with the diversity of material, served as a powerful magnet for collectors and dealers, ensuring that the items were intensively viewed, and the saleroom overflowing on the day.  Under those conditions, it was only to be expected that competition for the prize items would be intense, and - with one exception - Sotheby's can be very happy with the results.

To start first with the only real failure of the day: the "Medici Atlas", a portolan atlas,  apparently drawn by Giovanni Battista Cavallini, circa 1635, for Ferdinando II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The atlas contains 13 double page charts, including one of the world, the Mediterranean spread over three sheets, and 9 charts of the principal Mediterranean islands, including Cyprus, Malta, Rhodes, Sicily and the Balearics.  Its last public offering was in Sotheby's sale 'Highly Important Maps And Atlases', of April 14th 1980. A late example of the genre, so principally a decorative piece, and without detailed coverage of North America or the Middle East, its fate was always going to be precarious. Sotheby's did their best, illustrating 10 charts and 4 details in colour, and one black and white, although the colour reproduction did not do full justice to the original, a recurrent problem in the catalogue.  On the day, the atlas was unsold at £220,000 (est. £300,00-500,000), without attracting a single bid.   The atlas obviously represented a sizeable portion of the pre-sale estimate, but by the time the atlas failed, the success of the sale was assured.

More successful was a portolan chart of the Mediterranean World, probably drawn in Sicily in the first half of the seventeenth century.  Although also a late example of the genre, it was a particularly decorative example, with the colours still remarkably bright. Estimated at £15,000-20,000, it fetched £22,000.

Sotheby's catalogue was arranged alphabetically, but the results are here organised by category.


The earliest item in the sale was Francesco Berlinghieri's Geographia, published in Florence in 1482, which is considered to be the third printed atlas. Unfortunately the atlas lacked the final leaf, with the printer's colophon, but contained the full complement of 27 Ptolemaic maps and four modern maps - Spain, France, Italy and Palestine, the first engraved maps of each of those countries.  Without the colophon leaf, the volume could not be regarded a complete but, nevertheless, the final hammer of  £54,000 (est. £35,000-40,000) seemed a reasonable purchase in terms of some of the other results achieved.


The sale contained four Ptolemaic atlases, including two editions with Lorenz Fries' maps.  The first, published in 1525, sold for £17,000 (est. £12,000-18,000), despite some worming.  The second, and superior example, was published in 1541, and sold for £23,000 (est. £15,000-20,000).  Sebastian Munster's edition of 1552, the only edition with maps set within separately printed latitude and longitude borders, and containing his set of maps of the four known Continents sold for £13,500 (est. £8,000-10,000).  The fourth, a late edition containing Gerard Mercator's maps which were first published in 1578, here re-issued in 1698, was unsold at £ 2,200 (est. £ 3,000-5,000).

Two editions of Abraham Ortelius' Theatrum were offered, a contemporary-coloured example of the 1575 Latin edition, with 70 map sheets, and an uncoloured example of the 1595 Latin edition, with 147 map-sheets.  The former sold for £18,000 (est. £20,000-30,000), the latter for £31,000 (est. £25,000-30,000).  While there is a premium for good contemporary colour, it is the expanded geographical coverage of later editions that catches the attention.

Lot 6 proved to be the first surprise of the day, and really set the tone for future proceedings: a French text example of Blaeu's Atlas Maior, 1667, with a distinguished provenance - from Chatsworth House - but otherwise only a reasonable example of a relatively common atlas.  Hardly anyone could have guessed that intense competition would drive the price to £205,000 (quite possibly the highest price paid for an example of the atlas at auction), or that moments after the sale, a second example would be offered to disappointed underbidders by a resourceful dealer !  What price the next one ?  It is hard to see it reaching the same dizzy heights.


In terms of colour, a Dutch composite atlas from the 1690s was one of the most attractive lots in the sale, although some of the early maps were creased from careless handling.  With the pre-sale estimate of £20,000-30,000 always looking low, brisk bidding took the volume to £42,000.

Another interesting atlas was the 1636 English text edition of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas, translated by Henry Hexham.  Although uncoloured, and with damage to several of the maps, the hammer price of £24,000 (est. £20,000-25,000) seemed very reasonable on the day.  Not least of the appeal is having the text in a comprehensible language, and a part of the text on Virginia is illustrated here.

Another volume interesting for its text was Samuel Purchas' Purchas His Pilgrimes, First Edition, First Issue of 1624-1626 "one of the fullest and most important collections of early voyages and travels in the English language", containing upwards of 1200 separate narratives.  The volume contains the set of maps first used in Jodocus Hondius' Atlas Minor (1607), with 7 maps from English sources, including the infamous Briggs map of North America, one of the first maps to depict California as an island.  Always a popular work, it was not surprise bidding quickly passed estimate (£10,000-15,000) to reach £27,000.

Lot 51 was a lovely example of Moll's large world atlas, the World Described, containing 28 maps, each on two sheet joined and, as usual, folded down to the tall narrow folio format favoured by Moll.  The folds were in unusually good condition, the paper strong, and with the maps in bright original colour.  All in all, one of the nicest examples of the atlas one is likely to find.  On the day two bidders evidently agreed with me.  Estimated at £12,000-16,000, the atlas quickly progressed to £28,000, an astonishing price, nonetheless.

Although highlighted in the title of the sale, the Cosmography section was among the smallest groups in the sale.  The main items were two editions of Sebastian Munster's Cosmographia: the First French edition of 1552, and the second Italian edition from 1575.  The two volumes had very similar contents.  The French edition contained 14 maps, 3 folding panoramas, and 37 or 38 double-page town views, the Italian 14 maps, 4 folding panoramas and 38 double-page town views.  Here condition counted for everything.  The French edition, described as a fine example, sold for £ 14,500 (est. £5,000-7,000), the Italian, with repairs to the panoramas, the title rebacked, and occasional other tears fetched only £3,800 (est. £4,000-5,000).

Another lot was Joannes Honter's Rudimenta Cosmographica, 1548, with 12 double-page and one single page maps. A little water-stained and with the binding damaged, the book struggled, eventually selling for 2,800 (est. £3,000-5,000).


The sale featured a varied selection of Isolarios - books of islands - including a late manuscript version drawn by Antonio Millo, circa 1580, illustrating upwards of 90 islands, with Cyprus, Sicily and Crete as double page spreads. The atlas sold for £61,000, just over double the top estimate (£25,000-30,000).

Two very similar Venetian Isolarios were offered.  The first, without title and circa 1570-1575, contained 54 maps and engravings from the stock of Giovanni Francesco Camocio.  Despite being in poor overall condition, it sold for a surprising £7,200. The second collection, also with 54 maps and plates from Camocio's stock, but with the title-page of Simon Pinargenti dated 1573 (although possibly supplied at a later date) fetched only £8,000, despite being a much better example.  A near contemporary Venetian Isolario, 1576, by Tommaso Porcacchi with 47 engraved maps set in text, reached £4,600 (est. £2,500-3,000), while an example of Benedetto Bordone's L'Isole, published in 1547, with 112 woodcut maps set in the text sold for £6,200 (est. £5,000-7,000).  Late examples of the genre included  Boschini's L'Archipelago, with 3 folding and 46 full-page maps devoted to the Greek islands, which fetched £3,200 (est. £3,500-4,000), and volume II only of Coronelli's Isolario, with 91 maps and 20 globe gores sold for £16,000 (est. £10,000-15,000).


The sale featured a strong selection of coasting pilots, including the first with sea-charts, by Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer, with 45 elaborately engraved charts. Although the charts were fine impressions overall, (the general chart was trimmed as usual), the atlas reached only £14,000 against an estimate of £15,000-20,000.

The rarest of the pilots was Willem Blaeu's Sea-Mirrour, in the First English Edition of 1625.  Here also the provenance was good - from the Horblit Collection. The pre-sale estimate (£50,000-70,000) reflected the extreme rarity, and distinguished provenance, but still seemed bullish.  Not so on the day, although the winning bid was only the low estimate £50,000.

Jacob Colom's L'Ardante ou Flamboyante Colom de la Mer (1662) also attracted attention, at least in part for a rare four sheet map of the North Atlantic that it contained. It fetched £18,500 (est. £10,000-15,000). Pieter Goos' De Nieuwe Groote Zee-Spieghel (1668) sold for £17,000 (est. £15,000-20,000), and the second edition of Levanto's Specchio dal Mare, revised by Vincenzo Coronelli in 1698 (est. 10,000-15,000) reached £18,000.


Among the atlases in this category was the first Dutch sea atlas - in the real sense of the word - published by Johannes Janssonius in 1650. The atlas contained 22 charts, and also the section of classical maps sometimes included.  The charts were in contemporary outline colour, but with browning of the paper throughout, the atlas struggled, fetching £5,500 on a pre-sale estimate of £6,000-8,000.

In contrast, the very next lot was a van Keulen sea-atlas, 1684-1689, with the five volumes together in one, with 136 charts in full contemporary colouring.  The atlas seemed to be among the most popular items in the pre-sale viewing, and may well be considered the outstanding single lot of the day, on account of the quality of the colouring.  Here again the colour reproduction in the catalogue was poor.  The colour seen on some of the European maps was simply breathtaking.

A very scarce English sea-atlas was offered - the Atlas Maritimus et Commercialis, 1728.  The volume divides into two sections, the first an introductory text, unsigned but frequently attributed to Daniel Defoe, on account of similarities with his political views.  The second section, compiled by Nathaniel Cutler, with the assistance of Edmund Halley, contained 54 double-page maps drawn by John Senex, John Harris and Henry Wilson.  While a superior sea-atlas to the English Pilot, published by Mount and Page, and with complete coverage of the oceans of the World, it seems not to have been very successful, as it was never reprinted.  A fine example, it sold for £12,000 against an estimate of £5,000-7,000.

The most important of  the sea-atlases on offer was Joseph Frederick des Barres' Atlantic Neptune, 1778-9, which was intended to give complete coverage of the coastal waters of Eastern North America, for use by the Royal Navy.  Des Barres started with Canadian waters but, unfortunately, work had to be abandoned during the Revolutionary War.  The principal content of the 'Neptune' is Canadian, but there is detailed coverage of New England south to New York, and then more general coverage of the coast south to the Gulf of Mexico. The atlas was in standard condition - which means that it was in attractive contemporary hand colouring (particularly for the vignette views), but with general offsetting of ink and colour, with some cracking of the green colour, the paper brittle in places, and the bindings worn.  Nevertheless, examples of this very important sea-atlas turn up so rarely on the market that this was not greatly to its detriment.  Estimated at £70,000-90,000, it sold for £120,000.


Among the oldest items in the sale were two little astronomical texts.  The first, in catalogue sequence was the First Edition of Guido Bonatti's Decem Tractatus Astronomiae, 1491.  The text is illustrated by a series of woodcut maps of the constellations and drawings of the signs of the Zodiac, all hand-coloured.  A nice item, but lacking 15 leaves, it sold for £5,200 (est.£2,000-3,000).

From a similar period came Caius Julis Hyginus' De Mundi, first published in 1482, here in an edition of 1517, with 47 astronomical woodcut illustrations set in text. Estimated at £800-1,000, it brought a bid of £1,900.  Johann Gabriel Dopplemayr's Atlas Novus Coelestis, 1742, contained 20 celestial charts and diagrams, in full contemprary colour.  An attractive item, it fetched £9,500 (est. £7,000-9,000).  However, the most visually appealing of this category was Julius Schiller's Coelatum Stellatum Christianum, the First Edition of 1627, with 51 star-charts. On an estimate of £5,000-7,000, it sold for £9,800.

The final category is itineraries and books relating to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Land, which will be discussed in the next issue, in conjunction with Sotheby's sale 'The Holy Land and Middle East'.