Guests look over a historic map of the British colonies in North America given to the University of Southern Maine Friday by philanthropist Dr. Harold Osher. Osher’s donated map collection is said to be worth $100 million. Credit: Seth Koenig

A collection of rare and historic maps said to be worth $100 million is being donated to the University of Southern Maine, representing what school officials are describing as the most valuable gift ever made to the University of Maine System.

The gifted map collection of Dr. Harold and the late Peggy Osher includes a 1475 map of the Holy Land, generally regarded as the first modern printed map, and a 1755 John Mitchell map of the British colonies in America, described as “the most important map in American history,” according to a USM announcement.

The treasure trove of maps, which the university said will be combined with a “significant new endowment,” adds to maps previously donated by the couple to the school over the years since 1989. In 1994, USM opened the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, and moved it into a new, expanded space on the school’s Portland campus in 2009.

“[The Osher family] could take these maps and they could be anywhere in the world,” USM President Glenn Cummings said during a Friday morning news conference at the library. “The Smithsonian would welcome them. Private collections would welcome them. The Huntington [Library in California] would welcome them. Places in Berlin and London would welcome them. Dr. Osher sees the University of Southern Maine and Portland, Maine, as a place where he loves and wants to commit to our future.”

Glenn Parkinson, spokesman for the Osher family, said there are more than 450,000 maps in the collection, many of which have been on loan to the university’s map library over the years.

“Some of the maps are so old they’re only available for purchase every few decades, if ever,” he said Friday. “There are some one-of-a-kind maps in this collection. On one level, this is a priceless collection.”

“I started collecting maps because I love them,” said Osher, whose first map in the collection was an 1866 print of a map of Maine, found in London for five pounds. “These images involve all areas of human activity, not just geography, politics or religion. Maps are ideal teaching tools and primary sources of information, often from ancient times. You can often learn more from studying maps than by reading entire books.”

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Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.