History of OWA & Establishing Auction Estimates

History of OWA

Old World Auctions started out as Antique Map Mail Auctions, a phone/mail auction house, in 1977.  The business was owned and operated by Tim and Jeannie Coss in Bethesda, Maryland, and initially began as a collection that got out of hand.  In the beginning, auctions were run two to three times a year.  Interested bidders were mailed a catalog and could place bids by mail or by phone.  Around 130-200 lots were offered in each auction, with estimates ranging from $4 (for a Colton map of Germany) to $275 (for an Ortelius map of Italy).  The Cosses also ran Old Newspaper Mail Auction simultaneously, and in 1982 they merged the two businesses into Old Newspaper and Map Mail Auctions.  Five auctions were offered each year, with newspapers representing a much larger portion of the business than maps.  However over the next 5 years, the antique map portion of the business grew while the newspaper portion declined to the point that maps comprised 75% of the auction catalog of 500-600 lots.  In June 1987, the Cosses reflected this dynamic by changing the name of the expanding business to Old World Mail Auctions. 
In 1994, Tim and Jeannie Coss decided to retire and sold the business to Curt and Marti Griggs in Sedona, Arizona.  The Griggs introduced internet bidding to the auction in 1997 with a proprietary software program developed by Curt Griggs.  As Internet bidding quickly became customers' preferred method for bidding in the auctions, the Griggs simplified the company name to Old World Auctions (also known as OWA) in 1998.  That same year, newspapers ceased to be a part of the auction offerings.  Although the Griggs reduced the frequency of the auctions to quarterly, they increased the number of lots offered, and by 2004 they were offering around 800 lots per auction.  This increase in lots per auction coincided with the discontinuation of printed catalogs in 2004.
After running the business for over 15 years, Curt and Marti also decided to begin easing into retirement, and sold Old World Auctions to Jon and Eliane Dotson, of Richmond, Virginia in January 2011.  Although the business was under new ownership and in a new location, the goal of the Dotsons was to carry on the tradition and reputation built by the Cosses and Griggs.  The Dotsons have worked hard to continue the same principles since OWA's inception: carefully researched catalog descriptions; full guarantee of both authenticity and condition; and commitment to customer service.  Over the last two and a half years, the Dotsons have invested in the business by making enhancements to the OWA website and underlying technology, with more improvements to come over the next few years.  Although OWA has changed hands a couple of times over the last 35 years, its purpose remains the same - bringing together buyers and sellers who have a passion for maps and history.

Collector's Corner: Establishing Auction Estimates

One of the most important responsibilities of Old World Auctions is providing fair auction estimates.  It's a job we take very seriously and is a key step during the cataloging process for each individual map.  Our philosophy differs from many auction companies that typically provide very low estimates on the hope that their auction results will out perform their estimates.  At OWA we feel strongly that auction estimates should reflect the current market.  Whether you're curious about how we determine our auction estimates, or you want to figure out how to estimate the value of a map you own, here is a condensed version of our procedure for determining a range of value.
1. Review Past Auction Results.  To quote Confucious: "study the past, if you would divine the future."  One of the most important predictors of how an item will perform at auction is to review how it has performed in past auctions.  We review what prices a map has realized in our auctions as well as with other auction houses.  You can review our past auction results going back to 1998 on our website (
click here).  To get results from other auction houses, we typically use OldMaps.com, which offers a subscription service to their database of over 200,000 map prices (including both auction results and dealer prices).  We typically focus only on the last few years of auction results, as they are most relevant to today's market.  By looking at the past auction results, we can see whether prices on a specific map have been increasing or decreasing over time, and how much factors like condition and color impact prices.
2. Check Current Market Prices.  We also regularly check to see what a map is worth on the market today.  Our primary source is the internet, but we also pay attention to prices listed at map fairs, in upcoming auction catalogs, and in dealer catalogs.  A tip to finding online listings of antique maps using a search engine is to type the title of a map in quotes (usually just the first 5-6 words in the title) followed by the name of the cartographer or publisher.  So for instance, if you wanted to find listings of Blaeu's map of the Americas, you would type: "Americae Nova Tabula" by Blaeu.  If the map title is just one word, such as "America," it can be much more difficult to find relevant information using a search engine.  Adding the words "antique map" or additional characteristics of the map (such as the year of publication) may help.  In these instances, using a service such as OldMaps.com can be the most effective way to find relative market comparisons. 
3.  Evaluate Condition.  They say condition is king, and in most cases, we agree.  All else being equal (and it rarely is), if you take three examples of the same map in A, B and C condition, we typically find that the difference in value between the A example and the B example is between 15-25%, and that the C example may only be worth 50% of the A example.  Understanding how much certain issues -- such as toning, foxing, damp stains, worm holes or tears -- impact the overall condition of a map (and therefore value) is critical.  We have developed a guide that we use to evaluate condition, which helps us standardize the condition grading process (
click here for our condition guide).  However, evaluating condition is a combination of both art and science, and there are additional factors that determine how much condition impacts value, such as rarity, the format in which a map was originally published (such as atlas map vs. pocket map), and conservation work performed on the map.
4. Determine Additional Relevant Factors.  More often than not, estimating value is not completely straightforward.  There are several other key factors that must be considered, such as the state or edition of the map, color, and provenance.  Color can impact value either positively or negatively depending on how the map was originally issued, whether the color is original, whether modern color was done properly and period correct, and whether old color has caused defects such as discoloration or cracking in the paper. 
5. Set Estimates.  Once we have collected the above information, we balance all of the relevant factors to establish an auction estimate.  This estimate is presented as a range of prices that the bidder could expect to see in the current market.  Determining estimates is simple for some maps, and very complicated for others.  For example, when we come across maps that have no recent auction results and no current market comparisons, we must rely on the values of maps from the same cartographer or of similar geography, publication period, and size.  And as with most antiques and other collectibles, the estimate is valid for a specific period in time, as collecting interests and the market change over the years, which is why we re-evaluate the auction estimate for every map in every auction. 
Each of these steps probably warrants an entire article of its own (and hopefully we'll get to that someday too!), but this guide gives an overview of how we come up with our auction estimates.  We often receive requests from individuals who want to know how much their map is worth, and following the five steps above will get them in the ballpark.  Of course there is no substitute for getting an opinion from an expert or having a professional appraisal done, which is necessary for legal or insurance purposes.  Unfortunately, there isn't a perfect formula for valuing maps.  And at the end of the day, the true value of a map is based on the market, and depends entirely on what someone is willing to pay for it.