Collecting No 2: Distinguishing fake from real

Hans Kok

General Remarks

Maps may be genuine originals, originals from altered blocks or plates (e.g. after incorporated changes, based on new discoveries, etc.), restrikes from old plates (up to a hundred years later is not uncommon), or reproductions.

The terminology relating to reproductions is not precise. For the purpose of this article, a facsimile is an exact copy in full-size of a particular map. It may be produced on modern paper without intent to deceive. This might be indicated by a special printed or embossed sign outside the image area or on the reverse side of the facsimile. When manufactured using old techniques on specially made paper, a facsimile may become a work of value by its own merit. A facsimile may become a fake or forgery if, for instance, an identifying caption is removed and it is offered for sale as genuine, perhaps disguised within a frame.

Other reproductions range from larger than full-size to postcard format. A fake is something contrived, possibly on inferior material, bearing a fictitious name or date. It comes close to a forgery, which is a deliberate falsified artefact, intended to deceive the purchaser.

The number of acknowledged fakes or forgeries is still rather small; however, when prices increase, counterfeiting early maps is likely to increase. As a generalisation, it is easier to produce a fake woodblock than a fake copperplate engraving. Furthermore, an expensive map is more likely to be the subject than a cheaper one, as the potential rewards would be higher.

Finally, restorations to an original map may be so extensive, or deceptive, that ‘fake’; becomes a more logical qualification than ‘real’.

Buying subject to return, when not verified as original, is not always practical, but mostly acceptable to reputable dealers or auction houses. Note: Before buying manuscript maps (on paper, vellum or parchment), expert advice should always be obtained, as opportunities certainly exist for skilful forgery (Vinland map?). In particular the map’s provenance should be carefully checked.


Maps printed from woodblocks show no outer plate mark, as woodblock printing is a relief printing technique. Moreover, the woodblock is less sharp edged (and softer); the pressure exerted on the block is much less than in the case of copper or steel plates. On woodcuts there is, however, some indentation through the paper at the back of the map, which can usually be felt with a fingertip.

The ‘intaglio’ technique of the metal plates causes indented plate-marks, which are generally visible and can often be felt. The plate-mark should be continuous all around the outer edge of the printed image. In earlier maps, the plate-mark is normally quite close to the map image; on later maps, the plate-mark can be up to 1 cm outside the engraved area and not necessarily symmetrically so on all sides.

Joined multiple sheet maps (e.g. wall maps or maps in excess of about 40 x 50 cm) will usually have some of the plate-mark cut off to facilitate joining.

Large plates were difficult to handle, they did not fit the printing press, or paper of the required size was not readily availabl

CAUTION: Plate-marks are known to be added to fakes and in cases of re-margining during restoration. Where plate-marks take the form of a simple groove (paper is equally high on both sides), faking must be assumed.

Paper Markings

European paper, made before about 1800, shows two sets of parallel lines, about thirty to the inch one way, and another set of single lines at right angles to them. The single lines are about one inch apart. These lines originate from the trays used to produce the paper and the subsequent drying process. These so-called chain lines and laid lines form a slightly irregular grid which becomes more regular in later paper.

The lines can be seen when the paper is held up against the light and should continue outside the printed area, all the way to the edge of the sheet.

In cases where the lines are missing altogether, look for other telltale signs; this map may be a reproduction. When lines are present, but not all the way to the edges, this particular map may have had its margins replaced in restoration. Even when old paper has been used, line spacing may be different or show a mismatch.

The tray – called the deckle – produces an irregular edge to the paper sheet, the deckle edge, which is peculiar to early paper. However, the sheets may have been cut (no deckle edge along the cut) or the deckle edge may have been cut off altogether.

Early paper often shows watermarks (a study in its own right; books are available, but few are readily obtainable). This watermark is the paper-maker’s mark or image and can take a variety of forms. Paper was often stored for decades by printers; an identifying watermark thus provides a starting date only.

CAUTION: Blank sheets of old paper in small sizes are still available in fairly large quantities. Larger sheets are also found though in much smaller numbers.

Paper Quality

From the late 1400s until about 1800 European paper was made from rags pulped in water. After manufacture the paper would have been ‘sized’, treating it with animal glue to reduce absorbency. After about 1800 paper was increasingly produced mechanically from wood-based pulp, treated with chemicals. Its finish was typically smoother and harder; the grid lines are no longer present. Even though the old paper animal glue may have deteriorated with time this early paper is acknowledged to be tougher and longer lasting than much of the nineteenth-century paper.

Old paper is commonly of a heavy type, fairly coarse to the eye and to the touch. Thinner paper also occurs (a good example would be that used by Jansson), but was mainly used in the text-pages of atlases and books to keep thickness and weight down. When paper feels very smooth it is most likely of more recent origin. Paper of old maps has a difficult-to-describe ‘old’ feel and smell to it. Try to get your hands on an old map and a new one and compare! When a map is without any blemish at all (no holes, tears, water stains, rust, browning or foxing) it is unlikely to be antique.

Bleaching old maps can result in a pristine white paper colour, loss of original colouring, if any, but it will not remove other signs like tears, wormholes, thin spots, etc. Even when backed with Japan paper, this type of damage may still be visible, although new techniques, including a machine which joins new paper to old sheets, are making detection difficult. When paper edges are like new, they could have been trimmed recently to make them more presentable or you may be looking at a modern reproduction.


If the map came from an atlas, bible or book, a definite centre-fold should be visible in a typical early map. Some folded editions of many of the famous early atlases were made and maps have been sold separately as well.

On the back of the map, there is usually a tab or guard, enabling the map to be bound into an atlas. The guard may have been removed in part or in total, leaving merely a remnant, or even only some signs of glue.

When maps were too large to fit the size of a book, they were folded to fit. These folds may be on one side only, or on all four sides and in any combination as required. Often genuine maps will show some damage at the intersections of folds.


In English-speaking countries, contemporary colouring means colour applied around the time the map was issued, as opposed to modern colouring. In other countries there may be confusion when contemporary stands for modern colouring as opposed to old or original colour. To avoid misunderstanding, it is best to ask and make sure.

Later application of colour to a map originally printed in black and white or monochrome, does not make it a fake. However, it is relatively easy to pass off skilled modern colouring, or widespread retouching of an earlier coloured map as original colouring. This would be improper (See Collecting No.1).

It may take more than layman’s knowledge on the subject, but modern colouring – on an old or a new map – is sometimes done according to borders, which did not exist at the time of the map’s printing. Original colouring is sometimes sloppy, as it was occasionally done by children. Old colours may have soaked into the paper, especially green, whereas in general, modern colours do not. Some modern colourists know how to get this effect; they may give themselves away when front and reverse side colours do not coincide completely.