Caring for Your Stamp Collection
Caring for Your Stamp Collection
Maybe you’ve inherited an expensive stamp collection and are unsure what to do next. Maybe you’ve had a longstanding interest in philately — the collection and study of postage stamps — but only now had the means of taking your collection to the next level. Regardless, some basic knowledge of how to preserve your stamp collection is essential to protecting your investment for the long term.
While stamps must be strong enough to endure the rigors of mail delivery, even those printed specifically for the collector’s market are just thin pieces of paper that can tear or damage easily. Many veteran collectors have heard of — or even experienced — horror stories about rare or notable issues that saw their value sink considerably due to careless handling or extended storage in poor conditions.
With that in mind, in this article we attempt to provide a basic overview of everything you need to know about how to store and preserve stamps. Keep reading to learn more, and be sure to share your tips in the comments below!
Stamp Handling Basics
The most important and often first thing beginning philatelists are told when learning how to care for a stamp collection is simple: Don’t touch the stamps. No two fingerprints are alike but one thing they all have in common is how much grease, dirt and grime covers them. To prevent this from damaging your delicate collection, always use stamp tongs — not tweezers. These tongs feature special smooth jaws that prevent tearing, but are thin enough to pick up a stamp with ease. Despite this, however, using tongs properly requires a bit of finesse — beginning collectors are often encouraged to hone their skills on issues that are less valuable or are easily replaceable.
It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that, in a hobby focused exclusively on expensive minutia, a wide range of very fancy and highly specialized stamp tongs are available for purchase. A quick Google search will turn up several options at various price ranges.
Knowing the Enemy
The U.S. National Postal Museum identifies 10 “agents of deterioration” that they are particularly vigilant in guarding against when handling, mounting and storing stamps. While by no means an exhaustive list of everything that can potentially damage a stamp, it provides a good overview of some of the main things to look out for:
- Humidity: Humidity is perhaps the most important environmental factor to be aware of, particularly when storing your collection at home. While temperatures in most homes remain stable over the course of the year, humidity can vary wildly, causing warping, mold and mildew growth, and other conditions that can have a serious impact on the value of your collection. High humidity can also damage the gum causing a huge reduction in value. If your home is particularly prone to shifts in humidity, consider installing an environmental control, such as a humidifier or dehumidifier, to keep moisture content levels between 35 and 55 percent.
- Temperature: Excessive high or low temperatures and — more significantly — frequent shifts between extremes can damage stamps. Temperature changes cause certain materials to expand or contract, accelerating deterioration. For this reason, philatelists should never store their collection in an attic, basement, garage or other area of the home where temperatures have the potential to fall outside the range of 65°F to 72°F.
- Light: Most people know the damage long-term exposure to sunlight can have on upholstery, paintings and other printed or dyed materials. Stamps are no different — excessive sunlight can cause fading, color changes, yellowing and cracking. Minimizing the amount of time your collection spends in the direct sunlight is a key priority of long-term storage. While it may be tempting to mount your favorite issues in a conspicuous spot where guests can see them, it’s better in the long term to store them in a dark cabinet.
- Water: The damage water can do to an expensive stamp collection should be obvious — warping, deterioration, fungal infections and gum damage are all common consequences of an accidental spill. To minimize risk, don’t keep drinks nearby while working on your collection. Taking steps to prevent flood damage — including storing your stamps more than 6” off the floor at all times — is another good idea.
- Chemical exposure: Chemical damage to stamps can happen in many ways, from the presence of aerosol sprays and perfumes in the air to the grime and dirt passed by handling without tongs. These chemicals can attach to delicate paper stamps, causing them to break down over time. Storing stamps in an airtight container is the best way to limit long-term exposure, and remaining vigilant when cleaning or working around an exposed collection helps.
- Force: Using proper handling techniques is the best way to limit damage by force — a broad category that includes rips and tears, stressing, warping and scratching. To prevent these and other damages, purchase a good set of tongs and learn how to use them properly. Make sure your collection is stored in a safe place where it isn’t accessible to untrained handlers and is unlikely to be affected by vibrations or sudden impacts. If you store your stamps in an album, open it periodically and flip through the pages to prevent them from sticking together.
- Pests: Pests such as mice, insects and microorganisms are attracted to organic material such as paper. The damage they can do to a stamp collection in a short amount of time is often irreversible. To avoid this, never store your collection in cardboard or other paper containers. Take basic steps around your home to prevent infestation, such as sealing off entryways. Avoid the use of aerosol pest control products if possible, as they too can damage your stamps through chemical exposure.
- Fire: Fire and smoke damage are obvious hazards to any stamp collection. Ensuring you have working smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in your home is just common sense. If your collection is highly valuable, however, you may wish to take the extra measure of purchasing a fireproof safe to house it.
- Neglect: If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume you’re concerned about learning how to preserve your stamp collection, and are unlikely to neglect it in any major way. However, neglect can take subtle forms as well, such as poor record-keeping. Keeping details about your collection current — and backing these records up either electronically or as a hard copy — will be important for insurance purposes should anything ever happen.
- Theft: Lastly, the theft of rare or valuable stamps is an all-too common occurrence. While a typical thief may know nothing about philately, the steps we take to preserve and store our collections can alert an intruder to their value. If your collection includes high value or irreplaceable issues, you may wish to keep them under lock and key, and avoid displaying them in an ostentatious manner.
At-a-Glance: How to Store Stamps
Remembering these five details will ensure you keep your collection safe.
- Keep temperatures between 65°F and 72°F
- Keep humidity levels between 35% and 55%
- Avoid excessive exposure to natural light
- Keep your collection at least 6” off the floor
- Don’t use cardboard boxes or other materials that attract pests
Stockbooks or Albums?
Another important consideration that can affect the condition of your stamp collection is how you store it. The two most common options for storing a stamp collection are stockbooks and albums. Stamp albums are specially printed for an area of concentration — a country, a time period or a theme — and feature a dedicated space for each important issue, often accompanied by some explanatory text. The main advantage of a stamp album is that it makes it easier to organize your collection. Stockbooks, on the other hand, are a blank canvas, allowing you to arrange your stamps in any way you see fit.
Both stockbooks and albums come in a wide range of prices and configurations. Some elements to look for when choosing a stockbook or album include:
- Cover and paper material/quality
- Paper color (many collectors feel black paper best displays their stamps)
- Interleaving type and material (a clear or glassine strip that provides additional protection between pages
- Binding type
If you plan to keep your collection for some time and want to ensure it stays in excellent condition, a quality stockbook or album for storing your stamps is worth the investment. Some other items to remember:
- Don’t overstuff an album or stockbook — doing so puts too much stress on the pages and stamps, and can cause damage.
- Make sure your albums and stockbooks are stored upright to distribute weight and pressure more easily.
The last and perhaps most contentious issue to discuss with regards to keeping a stamp collection involves the various options available for attaching individual stamps in an album. This action happens in one of three ways:
- Directly: New stamps can be affixed directly to an album or stockbook. The obvious drawback to this is that doing so essentially ruins any collectible value they may have. Unless you’re collecting only stamps with little inherent value to begin with, direct attachment is not recommended.
- Hinging: Hinging has been considered as something that can greatly affect the value of a stamp. A stamp hinge is a piece of transparent tape that attaches to the back of a stamp, allowing it to be affixed in an album while preserving any watermarking or other features of interest. While good quality hinges can be peeled off without causing damage, they may still leave a residue that can affect a stamp’s value.
- Mounting: While expensive, stamp mounts are the best way to preserve expensive issues and store them without causing damage. They allow stamps to securely affix to an album page without causing any damage, making them the best choice for the long-term storage and preservation of any valuable collection.
Insuring Your Collection
No matter how vigilant you are about caring for your collection, accidents can happen. As much as we appreciate stamps for their aesthetic and historical significance, a large collection is also a financial investment and you should take the same steps you would to protect anything else of value.
There are a few things to consider when shopping for insurance for your stamp collection. First, be aware that your homeowners’ insurance may provide some degree of coverage. Most policies, however, have limits as to the amount they’ll pay out for damage to collectible items — sometimes it’s as low as a few hundred dollars. Be sure to confirm with your current insurer before making any decisions. Often, a policy can be amended to add additional coverage for a high-value collection.
Many companies offer specific insurance plans for stamp collections. Members of the American Philatelic Society can enroll in the APS Stamp Insurance Plan by Hugh Wood, Inc., though that is just one of many options — feel free to shop around and find the best plan for you.
Appraising Your Collection
Many insurance policies require a professional appraisal for coverage. Even if that’s not something you are considering, knowing the actual value of your collection is important when making decisions about how to store your stamps.
Apfelbaum, Inc. can help. Our appraisers travel around the country and can come to your home to provide a professional estimate of your collection’s value. We can also provide you with advice about the best ways to preserve your stamp collection or, if you intend on selling it, how to ship it safely to a buyer or auction house. To get started, contact our office directly. Keep browsing our website to learn more about our services, or check out our online sales to start hunting down that missing issue for your collection.