‘Know your enemies,’ warns conservator

By Jesse Robitaille

The first step in preserving your hard-earned philatelic collection is knowing your enemies.

The myriad of problems collectors can encounter in conserving their collections – including why they’re happening and how to solve them – was highlighted in a presentation at the recent National Postage Stamp and Coin Show by Bank of Canada Museum conservator and collection manager Patricia Measures.

“Now that you’ve decided to start building your collection, one of the smartest things you could do is learn how to take proper care of it. Although that sounds like an obvious thing, there’s so much information out there online, in this technological age, that it can be a little bit overwhelming.”

In addition to understanding the various agents of deterioration – or “knowing your enemies” – Measures delved into environmental requirements, including monitoring and controls; general collection storage; and basic care and handling guidelines, each of which will be explored in future CSN stories.


When it comes to preservation, knowing your enemies is critical, said Measures, who has been working as a conservator for nearly two decades.

“What do you need to look out for, and what are the repercussions of ignoring them? By no means an exhaustive list of all the potentially damaging things to your collection, the following will provide a good overview of the many things that you can encounter in your environment, in your home or in your storage area. The clue here is to beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said, adding trustworthy references include the Canadian Conservation Institute, which provides an exhaustive description of deterioration agents online at canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/agents-deterioration.html, and the Smithsonian Postal Institute.

The agents of deterioration include:

  1. incorrect humidity;
  2. incorrect temperatures;
  3. ultraviolet (UV) and infrared light;
  4. pollutants;
  5. pests;
  6. water;
  7. fire;
  8. physical force;
  9. theft and vandalism; and
  10. neglect.


Not only does humidity wreak havoc on hair, it’s among the most significant environmental factors collectors should be aware of.

“While temperatures in homes is usually pretty easy to regulate, humidity can go up and down quite drastically and cause mold and mildew problems,” said Measures, who added incorrect humidity is especially dangerous for paper-based objects such as stamps. “If you have stamps or a stamp collection with gum on them, they can stick to each other.”

She also warned of “foxing,” which refers to orange spots attributed to both mold and mildew as well as eroded flakes of iron embedded in paper during a stamp’s production process.

“Some of your older documents – so if you collect scrip or older notes with signatures on them in iron gall ink – are highly susceptible to high humidity. It will activate the acid, which will eat through your paper, and then you’ll lose the information as well as damage your documents.”

Low humidity is also a cause for concern.

“Low humidity can cause curling in photographs because they have a sensitive gelatin layer. For books and binders, if there’s a paper involved, it can curl or crack.”

Incorrect temperatures are also troublesome for collector items, especially paper-based items.

“Temperatures that are either too high or too low also adversely affect your materials and accelerate the deterioration process. Temperature changes can cause certain materials to expand and contract, and for materials like paper-based objects, it will accelerate the acids inside it.”

Overexposure to both natural and artificial light is another common enemy for collectors.

“If you have fluorescent lights in your space, watching out for the UV that they omit is important,” said Measures, who added UV light “causes a significant amount of damage.”

“For dealers who might have a shop with things out on display, the key is to limit the amount of light exposure from the sunlight or from ambient lighting.”


The long-time conservator said pollutants – whether airborne, intrinsic or transferred by contact – are another major enemy.

“Pollutants can be natural or man-made gases, and they can include aerosols, liquids or dust,” said Measures, who added moisture is absorbed in dust and “exacerbates problems, causing it to corrode further.”

Seven compounds have been identified as key airborne pollutants, including:

  1. acetic acid;
  2. hydrogen sulfide;
  3. nitrogen dioxide;
  4. ozone;
  5. sulfur dioxide;
  6. fine particles; and
  7. water vapour.

Pests are more than simply annoying; they can ruin a collection in a very short amount of time.

“Pests include microorganisms, insects and rodents, and they like to feast on your objects, especially if you have paper. They are particularly attracted to organic material,” said Measures.

“Pests are particularly attracted to cardboard and leave a lot of debris behind, so avoid cardboard boxes as much as possible.”


Water and fire are two other major worries.

“Main water problems are leaks and floods – water causes all sorts of problems if you have leaks – but it can also be a spilled beverage, so not drinking something while looking at your pieces is important,” said Measures.

Fire, on the other hand, can cause total loss of your items, especially if they’re paper based.

“Fire prevention is usually given the highest priority in our museum,” she said, of the Bank of Canada Museum. “We have fire extinguishers, fire suppression systems and all sorts of other safety measures, but in your home, making sure your fire alarms and batteries are changed and keeping things away from flammable substances is key.”

She recommended investing in a fire-proof safe to protect particularly valuable items.

“With fire you’ll also have other issues, whether it’s water to put out the fire or chemicals from extinguishers.”


Physical forces such as impact, shock and vibration are also dangerous for a variety of collector items.

“It could be earthquake damage, or it could be mishandling an object,” said Measures. “Everyone handles their items at one point or another … so these are things you really have to be mindful of.”

As seen in the pages of CSN far too frequently, theft and vandalism are relevant worries for both collectors and dealers.

“Theft is pretty high in the news these days. You have to be careful that you are not being ostentatious with your presentation.”

Each year, millions of dollars are lost because of theft from museums, art galleries, libraries, archives and places of worship, according to the Canadian Conservation Institute.

In 2016, a rare Inverted Jenny stamp – one of only 100 known to exist – resurfaced after being stolen from a display case more than six decades ago.

Lastly, if insured items are damaged or stolen, neglect can make the situation even worse going forward.

“It can mean good record-keeping in general,” said Measures, who reiterated the importance of maintaining good records “for insurance purposes.”

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