Antique Compasses



2015-06-26 11:15:50

Antique compasses are generally regarded to be compasses that were built before 1950.

Brief history and description

A compass is a navigational instrument that contains a magnetized pointer that shows the direction of magnetic north and bearings from it. On the face of the compass are the four cardinal directions; north, east, west and south.

There are two commonly used, though completely dissimilar, styles of compass. A gyro compass is a non-magnetic compass and is centred on a constantly spinning disc and the rotation of the earth in order to locate a true geographical direction.

The more common magnetic compass includes a magnet that interacts with our planet’s magnetic field in order to align its pointer to the magnetic poles.

It is widely believed that the compass originated between the second century BC and the first century AD during the Hans Dynasty in China. The compass did not arrive in Europe until the twelfth century but was immediately used for navigation. The dry compass was invented at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Guide to collectors

Science and technology antiquities, such as antique barometers and telescopes are highly valuable and antique compasses form an integral part of this niche collectibles market. Compasses continue to be a constant source of interest and fascination and, furthermore, this market encompasses both novelty devices to serious navigational and scientific instruments.

In recent years, however, there has been a gradual decline in the average prices of antique compasses, which means that collectors are now more than likely to find good quality antique compasses at reasonable prices.

Pocket compasses produced for military purposes during World War II are very popular compasses for collectors. There were two main models of these dry card compasses, the Mark V and the Mark VI, and each compass can be identified with a serial number located on the lid which increases their uniqueness and collectability. According to, these tend to sell between £50 and £200 depending on condition.

There is a considerable community of antique compass collectors on the internet and numerous sites that offer useful information and sources for potential buyers and existing owners. is perhaps the most informative but is also useful for collectors and enthusiasts.

Bargains can be had on online bidding sites, such as eBay but prices and the item's condition can vary significantly. The more rare and unique antique compasses typically sell at reputable auction houses, including Dreweatt's and Christie's. Committed collectors should browse catalogues that feature famous explorers as these represent the chance to own an antique compass with a colourful and unique history.

Notable Sales

In April 2000 at Christie’s London branch, a late nineteenth-early twentieth century lacquered brass floating card prismatic compass, that had once belonged to the English polar explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, realised a price of £14,100.

A compass used by the famous Welsh explorer, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, was sold for £6,573 when it was sold through Christie’s, London, in September 2002. The brass-cased sighting compass was used during Stanley’s famous Trans-African Expedition in 1871 in which he had been assigned to locate David Livingstone in Ujiji, modern day Tanzania.

Share on social media
Write a response...

The bookmarklet lets you save things you find to your collections.

Note: Make sure your bookmarks are visible.


Click and drag the Collect It button to your browser's Bookmark Bar.

collect it