Copper Plates Gone (Sort of)

Release Date:

The General Services Administration has completed the donation or sale of nearlly 4,000 excess sets of historic USGS engraved copper map plates.

About two years ago, the USGS and General Services Administration began transferring nearly 4,000 excess sets of historic USGS engraved copper map plates through donations to eligible organizations and sales to the public. From the 1880’s to the 1950’s, the USGS used the engravings to reproduce topographic and geologic maps along with other scientific illustrations and publications.                                  

By transferring “excess property”, the USGS not only saved money by reducing their own storage facility costs, but they also made money for the U.S. Treasury. 

There were 2,262 sets sold to the public through the GSA excess property auction website.

Vintage copper engravings of the greater St. Louis, Missouri area
  • The highest successful bid was for $18,938 -  Nantucket, Massachusetts;
  • The average successful bid was $489;
  • The lowest successful bid was $70 (the minimum set by GSA).

Based on the successful bids for sets sold to the public, the value of the engravings was more than $2.1 million, including:

  • Donated sets: $1,024,832 million (estimated from the average successful bid from comparable sales)
  • Public sale: $1,106,563 million (total of the successful bids). All of that money went to the U.S. Treasury

Other high dollar sets included:

  1) Los Angeles and Ventura Counties - $11,050

  2) Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts - $9,800

  3) Sierra Nevada, California - $7,700

  4) Santa Monica Mountains, California (geologic map) - $5,100 

“In addition to raising $1.1 million for the U.S. Treasury, this project reduces USGS facilities costs by an estimated $35,000 per year”, said Mike Domeratz, USGS project leader for the copper engravings disposition. “The USGS is pleased that our legacy copper plates are no longer stored in a warehouse but have found new places for display.”

The sets, sometimes several plates, were not easy to transport. For the USGS topographic maps, the typical set had three “reverse”-image plates, each 17 x 21 inches, weighing about 12 pounds each. One of the plates would contain man-made features, collar information, and place names (in black ink), one showing surface water features (using blue ink), and one for elevation contours (brown ink). Each organization obtaining sets through donation or sale had to provide and arrange transportation from the USGS Warehouse in Reston, Virginia.

All total, the federal government donated about 1,700 sets to federal, state and tribal agencies in 36 different states. Eligible academic institutions and non-profit organizations also received some of the surplus copper plate sets.

USGS cartographic printer works with litho stones and copper plates
USGS cartographic printer works with litho stones and copper plates