Making a mint from investing in maps

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 April, 1994, 12:00am

FOR a territory that went uncharted on world maps until 1789 and was often referred to as Fanchin Chow thereafter, Hong Kong's geographical presence was one of the later arrivals in the world of cartography.

Yet this inauspicious start has done nothing to dampen today's thriving map market in Hong Kong. According to art and map dealer Jonathan Wattis, the owner of Wattis Fine Art in Central, more people are entering the market, recognising maps are an attractive and affordable investment.

''Firstly, the maps are antique and as such they have a value,'' he said. ''From a collector's viewpoint, they show how the world was perceived in earlier times and how explorers arrived in Asia.'' In the 17th century, maps were more decorative. ''These maps are attractive, beautiful prints but they're also quirky,'' said Mr Wattis.

By the 18th century, decorations gave way to accuracy. The good news for collectors about to enter the market is that maps are accessible investments. At the top end, they can fetch relatively high prices. For instance, at a Christie's auction in New York in 1991, a map of Sir Francis Drake's voyage through the West Indies went under the hammer for US$210,000 (about HK$1.67 million).

Maps, most of which have been cut from atlases dating back as far as the 15th century, are valued according to their historical importance, age, physical condition and their subject. Certain cartographers are more highly prized than others and maps of popular regions, such as New England, are more valuable than those of, say, Africa.

World maps and those depicting the discovery of the Americas from the 15th and 16th centuries are fetching the highest prices right now. Early representations of New England, Virginia, Florida and maps depicting California as an island have also drawn strong buyer interest.

If you are considering a purchase, Mr Wattis said it made sense to start with a wood engraving map from the 15th and 16th centuries, which could be purchased for under HK$1,000.

Maps by the famous English cartographer John Speed sold at the Wattis gallery five years ago for $11,500 and $12,500. Those same maps today would be worth $30,000 and $32,000 respectively.

According to Mr Wattis, beginners should buy a book on antique maps and go to exhibitions. ''Find out how to identify prints and know the different printing techniques. Do your buying through a reputable dealer, obtain receipts and, if possible, certificates.'' While early maps of Europe are still relatively easy to come by, old maps of Japan, the US, China and the Far East are rarer.

Perhaps the most important consideration when buying a map is its physical condition. A first rate specimen will cost more than a lesser quality image, but should appreciate more in value. A 1755 map of the British and French Dominions in North America by the cartographer John Mitchell, in fine condition, sold for $45,000 at Sotheby's in 1991, triple the $15,000 paid for an almost identical map a decade earlier.

Besides map dealers and auction houses, many bookstores and print shops sell old maps, often already framed. Anderson Wong, owner of one of Hong Kong's best known picture framers, deals in a steady flow of antique maps from his shop, Man Fong, in Lyndhurst Terrace, Central. According to Mr Wong, Speed and Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius are two of the most popular map drawers.

Hong Kong and other buyers are entering the market all the time and, with Japanese buyers entering the market, prices are bound to rise.

For Hong Kong buyers, Mr Wong had no qualms about recommending antique maps as an investment. ''You won't make a huge profit but you will get your money back plus a 20 or 30 per cent profit so you will more than cover inflation,'' he said.