Brian O'Neill: Our ‘birth document,’ a bargain at $275k
June 25, 2017 12:00 AM
Forget stocks, bonds, gold or bitcoins. Maps of 18th-century Pittsburgh — that’s where the money is.
I probably shouldn’t say “maps.” There is only one known to exist, though its holder says its rarity is the least of what makes this pen-and-ink-on-parchment, 1784 model so prized.
The “Survey and Town Plan of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” is touted by AbeBooks.com as “the only surviving manuscript of the first plan of the city of Pittsburgh.” The asking price is $275,000.
That would be four times its price just a dozen years ago, and it has changed hands once since. Graham Arader, the largest map dealer in the world with galleries in three cities on both coasts, holds it now.
Just because it sold for X number of dollars in “some obscure little auction doesn’t mean that’s what it’s worth,” he said after I called Arader Galleries in New York.
Pittsburgh is “a tremendously important town and one of the great success stories of all time,” Mr. Arader, 66, said. “This is your birth document. It’s your birth certificate.”
Ah, but the wrinkle in this folded-map sale is that there’s said to be another 1784 map hiding in a storage closet on Grant Street somewhere. Gloria Forouzan of Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, who does historical sleuthing in her spare time, heard this from a former city hall denizen who said she saw the same map 20 years ago, resting behind some paintings on the fourth floor of the City-County Building.
Ms. Forouzan intends to spend some time looking for that, but while she’s searching, let’s talk about why this 233-year-old map might be worth twice the median value of a Pittsburgh home, even if there’s more than one map left.
The surveyor, Col. George Woods, laid out Pittsburgh in 1784. His son, John, did the drafting. Outside of Point State Park, Downtown workers still walk the Woods family’s same quirky street grid today.
There were three original drawings of the plan, but it’s long been said that two were lost in the Great Fire of 1845, which began when Ann Brooks prepared a fire to heat some wash water. A long drought and high winds turned that little fire into one that wiped out a third of the city.
This lone map turned up circa 1988 when a collector bought it at a house sale on the North Side. It is said to have survived because James Ross, a U.S. senator and the surveyor’s son-in-law, had it in his home outside the city in 1845.
Anyway, Mr. Arader loves this 13½-inch by 17¼-inch drawing.
“I passionately care about maps. They’re my first love” (though, with seven children, not his only love).
He started selling maps out of his room at Yale University in 1971 so he’s closing in on a half-century in the trade. He claims $500 million worth of rare maps in his inventory — “I spent a million dollars last week buying” — and has more than the next 20 dealers combined. He can tell you about the oxidation of the iron in the ink and why creases, rips and stains can be things of beauty.
When judging the value, he looks first at historical importance, whether it’s done with an attractive hand — “I would say this is extremely attractive” — and its condition. Pity the fool who “doesn’t know what beauty is” and tries to restore an old map, because then they’ve ruined it.
Last on his list is rarity. To the person who says, “Wow, this is rare,” he might respond, “Who gives a damn?” Sometimes that rare thing is an ugly paper of no import.
This Pittsburgh map, however, “has only aged the right way,” he said. Were it the earliest map of New York, it might be worth $1.5 million, but it’s nonetheless “the birth document of a vibrant city. If they had 10 of them, it wouldn’t matter.” His asking price still would be $275,000.
When you compare that to what is being paid for the much younger work of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol, he said, “I’m giving it away.”
That’s all the more reason to root for the long shot that there’s another one still hiding in the Golden — and Olden — Triangle.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947 or Twitter @brotheroneill