When the world was flat and California was an island, cartographers were scribbling away. You can't rely on their maps, but they might be worth a fortune, says Jonathan Sale

AS MAPS, these are cartographically challenged. If you are going round in circles somewhere north of Northampton or downwind of the Dordogne, they are worse than useless. Some of these maps place Scotland at right angles to Britain, an error which it is easy to make if you believe the world to be flat. Others show no roads, while still others ignore all inland features, concentrating entirely on coastlines and sea depths. A few rogue specimens make out that California is an island, an understandable, if deliberate, mistake made by surveyors under pressure to come up with something novel to justify their travelling expenses.

Do not complain to their publishers. These are not new maps, freshly presented in an atlas or on CD-Rom to guide us from A to B via the service station at C. These are antique specimens, some crafted so long ago that the end-users' ultimate worry would have been sailing over the edge of the world. None of them will be much use in finding your way to Bloomsbury on 14 June; but that is where you will find around 50,000 items from five centuries of cartography, at what is billed as the world's largest map fair.

Not just maps: there are cartographical curios such as maps reproduced on plates, umbrellas, handkerchiefs, dustpans, chewing-gum wrappers and bagatelle board games (score 1,000 if your ball fetches up in India). They have been printed on balloons to make inflatable globes and engraved on whales' teeth by long-dead sailors.

This is the 18th annual show of the International Map Collectors' Society, which boasts nearly 1,000 members worldwide. The fair includes a "road show", at which experts value visitors' maps, and an under-pounds 20 bargain- basement stall. Dealers will also be exhibiting examples priced at up to six figures.

The small private collector is a relative newcomer, going back less than a couple of decades. Now is the chance to make up for lost time. Old maps occupy an area somewhere between paintings and coins - that is, they can occupy a space on your wall in a way that other collectables often cannot.

"The idea is that you can easily look at a map, unlike, say, stamps, which are kept in an album," explains Yasha Beresiner (shown above in his shop), the founder of IMCoS, multilinguist, lecturer, author of British County Maps and a map-dealer in north London. "The earliest maps go back to cavemen, delineating a fellow's territory, and collectables are as recent as the 'spaghetti' maps of the Underground, that is, those produced before the present version with all the lines straightened out." Prices range from three or four pounds for recent Ordnance Survey maps, to well over pounds 500,000 spent on a complete atlas from the great Mercator. Gerardus Mercator (1512-94) was not the first to produce an atlas - that honour goes to Ortelius in 1572 - but that word was first used of his volume of maps, since it featured on the frontispiece an illustration of Atlas, the unlucky god contracted to support the globe on his broad shoulders. Atlases in general are today seen as financial investment rather than room decoration; expect to pay at least pounds 300 for a 19th-century edition (although all prices vary according to condition, colouring and the part of the world charted in the individual item). Otherwise, collectors generally go for individual maps originally taken from a bound volume.

According to Mr Beresiner, there are three ways of building a collection: "The first is to decide on a specific area, say Kent, and to look at all the cartographers who made a map of it. There are at least 150 maps of the region, including some from the early 20th century. Every collector covets a Saxton map; Christopher Saxton's atlas, published in 1575, was the very first with regional maps - until then there were only maps of, say, France and Germany but not their various parts. A Saxton map would cost more than pounds 1,000, even if it was of Rutland or another uninteresting area and was in poor condition. A smaller version of Saxton's maps, engraved in 1607 by William Kip and William Hole, would sell for anywhere between pounds 100 and pounds 300."

To prove his point, the next customer who comes into InterCol, his shop in Islington High Street, asks if he has anything which features Plumstead, which is now in south-east London but in 1890, the date of the map that he chooses, counted as Kent. He pays pounds 25 for it, plus the same again for framing.

Alternatively, the second way is to decide on a single cartographer. A good example is John Speed, who in 1611 was the first to add decorations, battlefields and insets of town plans. "He costs between pounds 200 and pounds 900 per map. But the price bracket of a 'John Cary', which in fact was a whole family of prolific cartographers beavering away at the turn of the 19th century, would bring you down to the pounds 120 level - pounds 15 if it is in the small map series."

The third way is to choose a theme. For example, centuries before road movies, there were road maps. "Before John Ogilby, maps did not show roads at all; in 1675, he produced 100 'strip maps', showing only roads and the features that they encountered." Ogilby, a dance teacher for the Royal Family until he broke his leg, set up a bookshop in London until it burnt down during the Great Fire of London. He then turned to cartography until, with typical luck, he died on the publication day of his revolutionary road atlas, a year after the strip maps were published.

"Ogilby was a fascinating character," enthuses Mr Beresiner. But fascination does not come cheap: his maps now cost pounds 150 each. The price of a smaller, 1720 version of these, produced by a pair of rhyming cartographers named Bowen and Owen, is somewhere between pounds 15 and pounds 40. The first complete maps, including coastlines and other essentials, were created by Robert Morden in 1676, who incorporated John Ogilby's roads onto his maps which were printed on a set of playing cards. Each depicted a different English county, of which there were, conveniently enough, a total of 52 at the time.

"I happen to have one in my wallet," continues Mr Beresiner, "the Four of Spades." He pulls it out. Priced at pounds 165, it depicts Merionethshire in Wales. "The Home Counties are more popular than the wilds of Wales: and they include London." This is a general rule; since the capital has a larger share of the population, it contains a greater proportion of people interested in laying their hands on a map of their own locality.

Maps on playing cards made a comeback in the Second World War. Like the silk "escape maps" made from parachute material and sewn onto a pilot's tunic, these packs were a concealed way of providing soldiers with crucial details of the surrounding geography in case of capture. Individual cards could be peeled apart, revealing a hidden map on the two inner surfaces. The latest in cartographical playing cards is a pack portraying 1,800 London streets that Mr Beresiner has actually issued himself. He also sells old card sets, as well as banknotes and books on collecting subjects. "Naked Truth", a pack of cards he commissioned and issued for the General Election, features cartoons of politicians in their birthday suits.

He is fluent in six languages. The son of a Greek mother and Russian father, he was born in Turkey, acquired a Law degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, worked in Latin America and now lives in north London. No wonder he sells maps of the world.

"It was because of my father that I started collecting at about the age of eight," he recalls. "When he returned from his business travels, he used to empty his pockets and place banknotes on one side, coins on the other. My brother used to pick up the coins and see if he could exchange them for cash at the bank; today he is working in the City, as a broker. I picked up the notes and put them in albums."

His interest in banknotes stayed with him while he was working as a lawyer, until finally he was offered a job in the collecting field - on one condition: to avoid a conflict of interest, his own collection would have to go. However, he had become interested in playing cards; in an early example of recycling caused by a paper shortage during the French Revolution, banknotes had been printed onto playing cards. He thus began collecting packs - which, as he has explained, sometimes included maps.

He was also led to the study of maps by his interest in coins, which are often featured in the decorative bits on the margins of maps. This may have been a roundabout route - putting the cartographer before the horse, you might say - but for him it most certainly put maps on the map.

! International Map Fair, 10.30am to 5.30pm, Sunday 14 June, Forte Posthouse Bloomsbury, Coram Street, London WC1N 1HT. Admission free. International Map Collectors' Society, 43 Templars Crescent, London N3 3QR.

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