In addition to settling Jamestown and, according to lore and Disney, romancing Powhatan princess Pocahontas, Capt. John Smith surveyed the Virginia landscape and left history a road map. His 1612 rendering, the earliest of the Old Dominion State, served as a template for 17th-century Dutch mapmaker Willem Blaeu, whose more sophisticated version mixes topography with the pop art of the day (witness Native Americans smoking pipes in their thatched longhouse). It was the Golden Age of Cartography, and the world was charting its future.
Blaeu’s conception resides with a latter-day John Smith, who freely navigates paved pathways like Lancaster Avenue, and has compiled a rich collection of historical maps that, sheathed in Plexiglas, animate the walls of his Villanova home and reflect our urge to portray the planet. They trace or anticipate the ocean voyages of chaps named Columbus, Cook and Magellan.
“I’m trying to kick the habit,” says Smith, a map enthusiast and attorney for Reed Smith. (For the record, his lineage is connected to neither his international law firm nor Pocahontas’ beau.)
No 12-step plan has yet been devised to wean a person from antique map collecting. With their symbolic flourishes, crisscrossing lines and evocative names, these intricate works of art engage the eye as well as the brain.
“They convey information and are heartbreakingly beautiful,” says Smith, who treats his hobby with the same respect he gives his clients.
The beauty is in the detail. German cartographer Sebastian Münster’s “Die Nuw Welt,” the first independent depiction of the New World, shows North and South America connected by a wide isthmus, and offers a sketch of the Victoria, the ship that took Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew through the straits that bear his name and around the world. Smith acquired the map, which dates to 1550 (some 30 years after Magellan’s voyage), from the Philadelphia Print Shop.
Another Münster map presents the world as it was perceived during the first millennium A.D., based on the work of the Egyptian geographer-astronomer Ptolemy. The gods of wind are blowing up a storm in this world of antiquity, which is noticeably absent in the Western Hemisphere.
The charm of inaccuracy is part of the appeal of vintage maps. Smith’s collection includes a depiction of the Western Hemisphere marked by an additional lush landmass below South America, a notion dispelled by 18th-century English Capt. James Cook, who braved the base of the hemisphere and found only Antarctica. And in an Italian mapmaker’s distortion of the New York Bay explored by fellow countryman Giovanni da Verrazzano, the area representing today’s Manhattan is the size of a polyp.
The mystique of maps gripped Smith as he was growing up in New York’s Hudson River Valley. He’d head down to the water to see the Liberty ships pass by, then hike the highlands, armed with a “sweaty, folded map in my back pocket,” he says. “I fell in love [with maps] as a teenager, backpacking and orienteering.”
After graduating from Princeton University, Smith served, appropriately, as the navigator of a naval destroyer during the Vietnam War. His next stop was Yale Law School, where alumnus Richardson Dilworth, the former mayor who had put progressive politics on the map in Philadelphia, helped recruit him to the firm then known as Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish, Kohn & Levy. Smith stayed at Dilworth Paxson for 21 years and joined Reed Smith in 1991. In addition to his busy caseload, he heads Reed Smith University, which boasts 300 courses and 3,000 students among partners and employees.
Smith’s education in map collecting began in earnest during a 1989 vacation to Barbados, where he came across some striking old maps of the island. “I took out whatever traveler’s checks I had left [to buy them],” he says. “From there, it was like eating peanuts.”
Indeed, most historical manuscript maps have been gobbled up by private collectors. Like any other commodity, they have a marketplace driven by supply, demand and salesmanship. “The most valuable are from the period when printing was rudimentary,” Smith says.
Back in the day, maps were drawn on wooden blocks to be covered with ink and pressed onto handcrafted paper. Münster’s map of the New World, for example, is a woodcut. The advent of the printing press, of course, made mass production possible. Hence, AAA routes tailored for motorists who don’t like to stop and ask questions.
In truth, mapmaking has long been equal parts art and science. The challenge is to represent a spherical shape (the Earth) on a flat surface, and vice versa—the “gores” visible on most globes are flat strips that have been pasted onto the sphere in a bid to minimize spatial distortion. The early maps were ambitious but often fanciful. Today, satellite technology has refined our world.
The epic mariners relied on less precise techniques, such as prayer, and the only orbiting body they consulted was the moon. The maps that they stitched together, and many of those that followed during the Age of Discovery, were all about location. Compass roses point the way north, and rhumb lines radiate across the meridians, marking the course of the navigator.
Smith’s collection has many such maps framed to museum standards. But it also contains maps with a tighter focus and a decidedly local flavor. An 18th-century map of Pennsylvania surprisingly shows many contemporary names west of Philadelphia, including Haverford, Radnor, Lower Merion and “Truduffrin.” Among the familiar landmarks noted are the Merion and Radnor meetinghouses, and St. David’s Church.
Honing in further on the locale as if by satellite mapping, an old Pennsylvania Railroad atlas map indicates that Smith’s land once belonged to the daughter of Israel Morris II, a coal-and-iron baron based in Philadelphia in the 19th century. Morris had acquired nearly 100 acres in the vicinity and built homes for several of his children.
Last April at his stately home, Smith treated about 40 members of the Radnor Historical Society to a slideshow presentation on the history of maps. The reviews were outstanding.
“Maps seem to have an allure for people,” says Ted Pollard, president of the Society. “They were spellbound.”
Smith, who aims for that kind of effect in the courtroom, as well, is beginning to think about the long-term fate of his still growing family of maps. During the past few years, he has given antique depictions of the Eastern Hemisphere, Africa, Europe and Asia to the International House (whose board of trustees he chairs) located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t sell maps,” says Smith. “I donate.”
He also stores them. A 1945 billboard-size map of Wayne recently acquired by the Radnor Historical Society is sequestered on his property while the society scrambles to find room for the 6-by-9-foot, wooden-backed behemoth.
And he continues to buy, mostly online via international auctions. There are worse habits—and this is one Smith is not likely to drop anytime soon.
“One of these days,” he confesses, “I hope to find a [future] home for the entire collection.”
Long consigned to musty books and library shelves, antique maps became red-blooded commodities three decades ago, thanks to the aggressive business tactics of one man. W. Graham Arader, a former All-American squash player at Yale University, brought his competitive instincts to the genteel world of rare maps and prints, creating a market where none had existed.
“He single-handedly made [antique] maps a high-priced collectible,” says Villanova attorney John Smith, who’s been in the marketplace for nearly 20 years.
Arader, who became a dealer in 1974 and owns a gallery in Philadelphia, among other cities, established a proprietary grading system to value rare maps, prints and books on the basis of condition, aesthetics and significance. Then, by force of personality and some innovative sales techniques, he captured the fancy and wallets of collectors, many of whom were inexperienced. Author Miles Harvey wrote that Arader plucked historical maps from the “insular realm of aficionados” and gave them “unprecedented visibility.”
Of course, where there’s a market, there are thieves in waiting. The most notorious map thief was one Gilbert Bland, whose appearance matched his name, but whose purloined stash was anything but. X-ACTO knife in hand, he relieved some 18 libraries and museums nationwide of about 250 rare maps during the 1990s boom market that periodicals labeled “cartomania.” The FBI entered the case, and eventually, Bland was sentenced and served time.
A more recent large-scale map bandit was also caught and sent to federal prison, this one after a spree of thefts between 1998 and 2005. E. Forbes Smiley, a dealer who sold his stolen inventory to fellow dealers, netted 97 rare maps from various libraries, including those at Harvard and Yale.
For map enthusiasts who seek to navigate a less perilous course, there are legal channels of commerce. Smith, a member of the London-based International Map Collectors’ Society (imcos.org), is one of an estimated 10,000-plus antique map collectors in the United States. The society’s quarterly journal provides a window on the business—including information on such outlets as Old World Auctions (oldworldauctions.com), which offers bidding online and by mail, phone or fax.