A 1641 world map by Henricus Hondius, printed in Amsterdam

Mapping a Collection

History, Art, and the Thrill of the Find

by Lisa J. Van Sickle

February/March 2018

Through the San Francisco Street door and up the stairs, a collector’s paradise awaits on the building’s second floor. One shop sells antique tribal arts, another has artifacts from Nepal and Tibet, and then there is William R. Talbot. Fine Art Bill Talbot carries fine art and prints, but the heart of his business lies in antique maps. 

Talbot’s entry into the map business began with a job in a company that made maps from aerial photos. While earning a cartography degree from the Swiss School for Photogrammetric Operators, he discovered European shops selling old maps and antique books and bought a few things. Eventually, Talbot found he preferred working with old maps to making new ones.

An old map of the Western United States
A.J. Johnson's map, published in 1862, shows one short-lived configuration of the West.
An old map of New Mexico
Morley's Map of New Mexico, 1873, shows the state's borders as we know them now.

He arrived in Santa Fe in 1985 to work for a gallery but opened his own business the following year, building a clientele of individuals and institutions and gaining a reputation for selling authentic material in great condition. He procured several important pieces for the Houston Public Library’s Texas Room. He helped another client build a collection of books, prints, and other material centered on early discoveries in natural history, medicine, astronomy, and other scientific fields. The material included original texts by Isaac Newton and Galileo, an undertaking he describes as “clearly a once-in-a-lifetime project” with a steep learning curve. In 1990, Talbot bought a complete set of Audubon prints—The Birds of America—for a client willing to pay $3.2 million, a record price at the time, and a sale that put William R. Talbot Fine Art on the map.

Many of Talbot’s clients came to collecting through other interests. “My people aren’t just buying maps and prints,” he explains. Customers may expand interests in Texas history, gold rushes, railroads, or the Lewis and Clark expedition into a desire to own relevant maps in addition to other artifacts. Many clients have assembled what Talbot refers to as “thoughtful collections”—maps, prints, and books about exploration, among other items. 

Other reasons to collect old maps? Some are drawn to their beauty: hand-colored, with elaborate engraved designs around the borders and exquisite calligraphy. Others seek out pieces famous for the inaccuracies they contain, such as California portrayed as an island. For these collectors, the bigger the mistake, the better. Or, as one client who became a dear friend said when Talbot asked what had driven him to amass such a magnificent collection, “I thought it was romantic.”

Exploration and Western expansion are part of our mythology The maps and prints resulting from Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 1803 or Karl Bodmer and Prince Maximilian’s trip up the Missouri River in the 1830s are a window into another time. As Bill Talbot sums it up, “A diverse collection might answer the question of, ‘Who were these people, where were they going, and what did they look like?”’ Romantic, indeed.

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