Refresher Course

Handle and store your collection with care

By Michael Baadke

One thing every car owner hates to see is that first ding or scratch in a new car's body. The car may have been perfect in every respect when it was driven off the dealer's lot, but the first mishap to mar the new car, no matter how tiny, somehow alters it forever.

Figure 1. Using fingers to pick up and handle stamps can easily result in damage (top). Specially manufactured stamp tongs (bottom) are inexpensive and much safer for stamps.
 
Figure 2. Store stamp albums and stock books upright on shelves in a room with safe temperature and humidity levels.
 
Figure 3. Don't ever bring food or drink this close to your collection. Just one small mishap could result in disaster.
 
Figure 4. Transparent sleeves protect covers from dirt and fingerprints but still allow viewing from both sides.

Stamp collectors go through similar suffering when they realize a choice stamp obtained for their collection has been damaged in one way or another. In the Dec. 18, 1989, issue of Linn's Stamp News, Michael Laurence reported that one of the famous United States Jenny Invert airmail stamp errors of 1918, of which only 100 are known, had just suffered an inadvertent trip through a vacuum cleaner. Although the stamp was retrieved from the appliance and dusted off, the journey left it creased, soiled and torn.

The owner, a well-off East Coast collector, reportedly responded to the mishap by saying, "Thank goodness it's something I can replace." Most of us will never own a Jenny Invert. If we did, our reactions would probably be more dismal if the stamp were vacuumed into space-filler condition.

There are really two important reasons why collectors go to great lengths to keep their stamps and covers in the best condition possible. The condition of a stamp or cover can greatly affect the item's value. Damaged items trade or sell for considerably less than the same items in undamaged condition. Probably just as important, though, is the way that the collector feels about having damaged items sprinkled throughout a collection.

Not every collector can afford the finest example of each stamp, but most collectors take care in selecting their stamps. It's much more satisfying to know each stamp in the collection has maintained its condition because of proper handling and storage than it is to look through a collection and spot damage to stamps that could have been avoided. Individual stamps are among the most fragile items in the stamp hobby. Even a new mint stamp can be torn, creased or stained with just a moment's inattention.

Many collectors handle stamps with their hands or fingers. Sometimes this can hardly be avoided, such as when a collector separates a single stamp from a pane. To help prevent damage to stamps, particularly mint (unused) stamps, collectors often use stamp tongs whenever possible.

The tips of stamp tongs are specially designed for picking up and holding postage stamps. The tips are rounded and highly polished, making them safe for this delicate task. Standard tweezers, which resemble stamp tongs to some degree, should not be used with stamps because the ridged tips can crease or cut fragile stamp paper.

Human skin is always coated with some oily residue. Even a good solid hand-washing reduces that skin oil for only a very brief time. When skin oil is transferred to a stamp, even in minute quantities, it can act over time to discolor or dull the stamp. Certainly every collector should carefully wash his hands before touching stamps, but using stamp tongs practically eliminates the chance of soiling stamps with skin oil or other residue.

Figure 1 shows a collector attempting to pick up a stamp with his fingers. Notice that the stamp is bending as the collector struggles to pluck it off the table top. At the bottom of Figure 1, the same collector finds it easier to lift the stamp using a pair of stamp tongs. The stamp is held firmly, and the danger of bending or creasing the stamp is eliminated.

Collectors often keep their stamps and covers safe in albums or stock books. The fragile edges of stamps can be damaged with careless handling. On perforated stamps, the pointed tips, known as "teeth," can be bent, creased or torn easily. In an album or stock book, stamps and covers are stored flat in a fixed position, so the opportunity for damage is greatly reduced.

Stamps, covers, albums and stock books always should be stored in an area where humidity and temperature are kept at reasonable and fairly constant levels. The combination of heat and humidity can activate the adhesive on the back of many stamps, causing them to stick to album or stock book pages.

The added element of pressure on album pages or stock book pages can further aggravate the situation. When pages are packed tight with stamps, the adhesive has an even greater chance of sticking to the page.

Albums and stock books should never be overstuffed with stamps or pages. This can be tough on the pages and on the stamps, making either or both susceptible to damage.

Another way to avoid pressure on stamps is to make sure albums and stock books are stored upright, as shown in Figure 2. When an album lies flat on its side, the weight of the pages on top puts a lot of pressure onto the bottom pages. Storing the album upright distributes that weight evenly and reduces the pressure on both the stamps and the album binder.

When an album is not in use for extended periods, it is recommended that the collector periodically open it and carefully turn each page to ensure that all stamps are still affixed properly and that pages separate easily.

Stamps and albums should always be kept out of direct sunlight and away from dust. Storing stamps in a cabinet with a door is one way to accomplish both of these goals. Special album slipcases are available from some album manufacturers to further protect the stamps inside.

Sunlight can fade the colors of stamps and album binders. Heat from sunlight or other sources can cause binders to crack and album pages to yellow. Even repeated moderate exposure to room light can affect the colors of many postage stamps, either by fading them or by changing their appearance. Stamps displayed in frames for any length of time are likely to show evidence of damage from light.

Collectors should never place food or beverages near stamps, covers or albums. Figure 3 shows a disaster waiting to happen, with coffee and snacks right next to an open stamp album. Spills or drips can cause immediate and irreparable damage to stamps or an album. Even the crumb of a cookie dropping unnoticed onto an album page can create a permanent stain on the page or on a stamp.

Covers — including first-day covers, postcards, mailed envelopes and wrappers — all need to be handled and stored with the same care and common sense that is applied to stamps. Jamming covers together into tightly stuffed boxes can easily result in creases or damaged corners.

Storage boxes for covers should always have enough room for covers to be removed easily. But if there is too much room inside the storage box, covers may slide around loosely and suffer bent corners when other covers stack up on top of them. Cover boxes should be made of archival material that will not oxidize and stain covers.

For added protection, individual covers can be kept in transparent cover sleeves. There are several varieties of sleeves available, offering varying degrees of protection.

The example shown in Figure 4 is made from a sturdy transparent plastic that is chemically neutral so it will not damage the paper of the cover or stamp. The firm plastic resists bending or folding.

Also available are inexpensive polybag sleeves, which are best used as temporary storage for large quantities of less valuable covers. The clear plastic provides protection from dirt and fingerprints, but the thinner, flexible material does not protect against bending.

Some collectors use glassine envelopes to store covers or stamps. These are also best used only temporarily. Because the glassine material is easily bent or creased, the collector must ensure that the envelopes are stored in a manner that protects the contents from harm.

Cover albums are available with transparent pages that hold covers securely and allow easy viewing. Cover albums provide the best protection for covers, but they are also considerably more expensive than sleeves or glassine envelopes.

All the collector tools and supplies mentioned here are available from stamp dealers and stamp hobby suppliers. These products serve to protect your favorite collectibles, so you can enjoy them for years to come — long after that new car has been consigned to the junk yard.