OFFERED this month at Christie's New York, a copy of Abel Buell's 1784 New and Correct Map of the United States of America... became the most expensive map ever sold at auction.
His is not a name that springs readily to mind when considering
the great names of cartography, but, at the sale on December 2, a
copy of the monumental, four-sheet wall-map, sold at $1.8m (£1.15m)
plus premium to an American collector.
Buell's depiction of the newly independent nation was the first
to be printed in the United States and, in its title cartouche, the
first to include the Stars and Stripes. It is in fact a map of many
firsts, but is known in only a handful of copies, all of them in
This was the first time that his historic and opportunistic map
had ever been seen at auction.
As a young man, Abel Buell was branded and had his ear cropped
for counterfeiting coinage. After a tumultuous, up-and-down career
of invention and bad business choices, he ended his life in the New
The young Buell gained early notoriety in his native Connecticut
when, in 1764, he was found guilty of counterfeiting coins and
received the mandatory sentence of imprisonment, cropping or
branding - though it seems his punishment was carried out with
restraint. State records tell us only the top of his ear was
cropped off, and he kept it warm on his tongue until it was
possible to replace it and let it grow back! The branding was
carried out, but the letter indicating his crime was burnt onto his
forehead as high as possible.
Described by his only biographer as "a restless, unstable,
inventive genius", Buell was apprenticed as a silversmith but also
worked as an engraver and typefounder, in which latter field he was
the first in America. He invented a machine for grinding and
polishing precious stones and, somewhat ironically, given his early
misdemeanours, one of his first post-revolutionary ventures was to
cast the State of Connecticut's first pennies on a minting machine
of his own manufacture.
In the decorative arts world, Buell's name may be familiar to
some as a silversmith, but it is the map that he put together as
yet another of his speculative ventures for which he will be
longest remembered. Buell cleverly drew on and synthesized the work
of earlier mapmakers. His key sources were the celebrated Mitchell
and Lewis Evans maps of 1755 (the former being the map actually
used in negotiations at the Treaty of Peace), but he also borrowed
from Thomas Hutchins' map of the Trans-Allegheny region and
Jonathan Carver's map of his explorations of the Great Lakes and
Buell took a few liberties - running the prime meridian through
Philadelphia rather than London, for example - and, taking
advantage of the fact that state borders were still highly confused
and poorly established at this time, he showed his own home state
of Connecticut with its borders reaching as far west as the
Mississippi. New York state is swallowed up by the great
Connecticut landmass and not even named on the map.
William McMurray had, in August 1783, already proposed a new map
of the new United States, but a manuscript version of his 'United
States according to the Definitive Treaty of Peace', displayed in
the Philadelphia Coffee House, was slow to attract subscribers and
Buell, who had the advantage of being his own printer, was first to
publish. It was not until 1924 that the Library of Congress, which
does not own a copy, acknowledged Buell, not MacMurray, as
producing the first map of the US.
The copy at Christie's was consigned by the New Jersey
Historical Society, to whom it had been given in 1862 by Senator
William L. Dayton of New Jersey who, whilst serving as Lincoln's
Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, had come across it on one of his
frequent excursions to the city's book and print stalls.
Despite some chipping around the margins, it is one of the
best-preserved of the seven recorded copies, largely because it was
unvarnished and had lain undisturbed for almost 100 years.
The buyer's premium was 25/20/12%.
By Ian McKay