Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Value of the Eagle map of the United States

At the Palm Springs filming for Antiques Roadshow, one of my favorite maps of all time—-the Joseph Churchman “Eagle” map of the United States from 1833--came in and I was able to do an on-air appraisal which just appeared in late March, 2017. I appraised the map at $25,000 for a retail value, noting that though that valuation might be a bit aggressive, it was “fair.”

In deciding on what value I would put on the map for ARS, I chatted with a friend who is also a map seller. We knew of only one instance where the map had been for sale in the last several years, where it was listed at $25,000, but my friend said he thought that price was high. He commented that the map isn’t (geographically speaking) that important and $25,000 is really quite a high figure for most American maps of the nineteenth century. However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought $25,000 was a fair price.

[image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection]

As I have often noted, the value of most maps comes from their historical importance in showing new geographic or political information. This map is geographically derivative. It is basically a simplified version of the C.S. Williams map of the United States from the same year, which itself was based on a S. Augustus Mitchell’s map, which in turn was based on an 1830 map by Anthony Finley. Clearly, the value of the map does not come from its historical, geographical importance.

[image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection]

A lot of the value, of course, comes from its unique appearance. The eagle is a very popular image, one which has an appeal across the board for anyone interested in Americana. Maps, prints and pretty much any objects with an eagle design are always in demand and the eagle here is striking and quite attractive, so that would naturally give the map extra value above its geographic content.

What makes this even more relevant is that this is the only use of the eagle for a map of the United States. Joseph Churchman wrote about how it was the happenstance of the way a map of the United States was hanging in his apartment which caused the light and shadows to create the impression to him which suggested a bird. Combine this with the fact that soon the shape of the United States changed—-with the addition of Texas in 1845—-so that the eagle shape no longer fit the country. Thus, this really delightful concept and design only appear on this single map.

The final factor increasing the value of this map is its extreme scarcity. Scarcity by itself does not create value, but when an object is particularly desirable, scarcity can ratchet up the value by considerable amount.

[image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection]

This map is particularly scarce because of its publication history. The map was issued folded into a quite small book. Any such folding map—and these maps were printed on very thin paper—tends to be scarce because repeated folding and unfolding often leads to major tears or pieces torn right off. This natural attrition to a map folded into a book is compounded in this case by the fact that the book it was issued in, Rudiments of National Knowledge, Presented to the Youth of the United States, and to Enquiring Foreigners, was a book for young people, not a group of readers who would likely take much care with the map.

Given this history, it is somewhat remarkable that any of these maps survived in good shape. Almost all copies of the book which come on the market are missing the map or have only a fragment, and the map itself very rarely comes onto the market.

So, combining the fact that this is a very rare map with an appearance and symbolic power which appeals to a very wide body of buyers, creates a strong value for this map. Basically, the map almost never comes on the market and when it does everyone wants to own it. I think $25,000 would be a fair retail value, but would not be surprised if one came up at an auction and brought even more!


  1. If one were lucky enough to own such a map, how would you know if it was real or a reprint?

  2. The easiest way is the process and paper: it should be an engraving on early 19th century paper. That isn't that easy for those without a lot of experience to tell, so a good test is whether the map was folded (you can see it was issued folding into the book). A reproduction will show the folds, but they will only be images of a fold, not a real fold.