Thursday, August 12, 2010

"What the experts collect"

I was recently contacted by the folks at, a blog on "events, news and information for collectors of all stripes." I had not run across the blog before, but looked it over and was pretty impressed. As I have mentioned before, I not only work with a lot of collectors, but I am a collector myself. This blog has a series about "what the experts collect," and they asked if they could interview me about my wife's and my collections, and I was happy to do it. As I have said, this summer is a crazy time for me so I am going to just copy the interview into my own blog. This is a bit cheeky (and I did ask them if it was ok), but I thought you all might be interested.... (It is worth visiting and you can see the original interview there)...

AmeriCollector: It always amazes me that people would buy some mass-produced framed print or some other tacky reproduction from a department store instead of getting a genuine old print – even an attractively designed book page or an illustration from an old newspaper – and having it framed, preferably with preservation materials (acid-free matting, conservation glass – the subject of an upcoming story). Even though there’s a multitude of beautiful images and typographical examples available in a wide price range – with many beautiful engravings and chromolithographs costing not that much more than a print from Target – some folks would rather decorate their homes like a Motel 6 than put a little piece of history on their wall. Go figure.

An old print or poster makes a fantastic gift as well, and if skillfully framed can become the centerpiece of a room, more furniture than accouterment. Having a print (or photo or document, like a vintage stock certificate) custom framed can be pricy – and may even cost more than the print itself, especially if you have it done with the archival materials, which you should – but my motto is: If it’s worth framing, it’s worth framing right. Believe me, there’s a world of difference between a beautiful print that’s beautifully framed and one that looks like your kid framed it in arts & crafts at summer camp.

It’s also a lot of fun selecting an old print, especially if you want an image that connects to your or a loved one’s collection. Sometimes that just means riffling through old magazine ads to find one for Harley-Davidson if your boyfriend’s other passion is his hog, or an old “Police Gazette” engraving of a twelfth-round knockout if Uncle Rocky is an ex-pug. Of course, if you dream big - a long rail journey to Istanbul or a passage to India, perhaps – an old travel poster in your living room or home office will keep you focused and on course.

Prints can really make a statement: who you are, where you want to go …

However, I’m just a casual print collector: What does a bona fide print maven – a print professional – collect? I asked “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser Christopher Lane, co-owner (with Donald H. Cresswell) of The Philadelphia Print Shop (, who I introduced in my last post and who will open The Philadelphia Print Shop (West) in Denver in October, about his love of prints …

AmeriCollector: What do you primarily collect?

Chris Lane: I got into this field because of my interest in maps. I was a graduate student in philosophy and went looking for a map to give to my sister as a wedding gift. The dealer I bought the map from offered me a job and so I took a break from my thesis to work for a year and learn as much as I could about old maps. I got hooked and at the end of the year decided to start my own business, which I did in 1982 with my partner, Donald H. Cresswell.

I have always had a bit of the collector bug and of course had to collect antique maps. Because I didn’t want to compete with my clients – partly because it wouldn’t be fair to Don – my wife, Lindsey, and I decided to collect maps of the British Isles and Oxfordshire. I had met Lindsey when studying at Oxford (she is British) and so this was a natural thing for us to collect and a subject for which there were not a lot of American collectors.

Early on we both got interested in American ornithological prints, particularly through the wonderful prints of Mark Catesby. Our first non-map was the Catesby “Blue Heron” and now we have nice examples by almost every naturalist who made prints of American birds.

AC: What do you enjoy about collecting maps and prints?

Chris: The thing I enjoy most about collecting – other than the thrill of the chase – is that in building a collection one builds a graphic history of the topic you collect. My background is not at all in art; it is in history. While I primarily studied philosophy, history was always a “minor” in my studies. I found that I was able to envision history, and remember it, much better when I had contemporary images, prints and maps, of the subject I was studying. When you put together a collection of prints or maps of a particular place, you can visually see the history of the place: the changes in society, the physical structure, the economy and pretty much everything else. Then when you read about a period of history, you have an image in your mind that you can hang the text on and that really broadens your appreciation and understanding of that history.

AC: How do you build your collection?

Chris: Probably the thing that Don and I spend most of our time on here at the shop is buying inventory. It is relatively easy to sell when you have good items – the problem is finding those good things. So in our constant hunt for good inventory we regularly come across things that fit my collecting interest. We do most of our buying privately, but we also buy from other dealers and a little (probably about 5 percent of our inventory) at auction.

AC: What do you look for when choosing a new map or bird print to your collection?

Chris: I look for items that will fill in “gaps,” mostly by date, but also in trying to have items by all the major print or mapmakers who made items that fit our area of collecting. Also major items, even if I have other things that are similar, and those items that are “special” in some other way – such as a map that was particularly well colored at the time. Sometimes, though, we’ll buy something simply because we like it, mostly when it makes us smile to look at it, whether it is important or not. We are always concerned about condition, but if the item is rare enough, we’ll add it to our collection, hoping that maybe someday we’ll be able to upgrade.

Price is rarely a consideration. Now, of course I do have an advantage at usually being able to buy at “wholesale,” but it still costs me money when I add something to our collection, as I have to make good with my partner. If there is a map or print that fits our criteria and is something that should be added, unless the price is totally out of line, I’ll go for it, even if I think the price is too high. In the long run, I will be far unhappier if I pass it up than that I paid a bit too much. I have seen that many times with collectors I have worked with, and while I usually warn them (of course, they think I’m just trying to make a sale), usually a collector doesn’t learn that lesson until they pass something up that was “too expensive,” only to regret it the rest of their collecting days.

AC: Is there a “holy grail” that you’re trying to find?

Chris: I would love a nice example of the George Lily map of the British Isles, first drawn in 1546. The “holy grail” for maps of Oxfordshire is the map from Christopher Saxton’s atlas of 1579. I have a wonderful example of that with original color which I found at an auction in Ohio and was able to buy for $200! I heard about the auction — that it had some British maps — and got a list, which included an unidentified map of Oxfordshire. From the description I recognized it as the Saxton map and after talking to the auctioneer on the phone I became convinced it was an original with original color, though it was laid to a backing. I didn’t want anyone to realize what it was, so I just asked the auctioneer if I could bid on the phone for a number of the British maps. I had decided I would pay as much as $5,000 for the Saxton, but bidding started at $50. When it got up to $200 I didn’t hear anything more. I was terrified the person on the phone might have missed a bid, so I kept saying, “Am I still high bidder?” Finally, I was assured not only was I high bidder but that I had won the map. As a business, The Philadelphia Print Shop has had a few great buys like that, but it was particularly fun that this time it was for me personally!

AC: Any advice for collectors of prints and/or maps?

Chris: The most important thing to me is for a collector to focus on a theme for the collection. Without a theme, it will just be a “group” of prints or maps, not a collection. The theme is what gives form and coherence to the group, making it a collection. The theme can be anything you are interested in: a time period, a style; prints showing canoes, maps of a particular place, presidential prints or whatever. Make it something you like and the collection will have meaning.

The next most important thing is to educate yourself. Learn how prints and maps were made and in what form they were issued so that you can recognize an original (we still find reproductions being sold as originals in some of the major auction houses!). Also, learn about the history of whatever theme you have chosen; this will help you appreciate those items you have and also to learn which items are important to your collection and which aren’t. Also, learn what is out there within the scope of your collection and how rare or important things are. That will help you decide whether to get something, even if you have to pay a premium or it isn’t in great condition.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great interview. Thank you for sharing your insight about collecting rare prints.