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A Guide to the Safe Storage of Autographs and Signed Photos – Part 1, Storage in Sleeves
I put this article together after many requests from customers regarding the right and wrong way to store their much-loved autograph collection. All too often I’ve seen lovely vintage items that have been poorly stored or displayed, rendering them second-rate junk only fit for the 99p bargain bin!
It doesn’t take much effort to store them in such a way that in ten years they will still look as good as they do today. If you are spending good money on autographs and intend to give them to others or perhaps cash them in as an investment later, then please take the time to store them carefully, I promise you it will pay off!
I will only cover the storage of autographs and signed photographs in envelopes on these pages, as the storage, conservation, framing, mounting and repair of these items will be covered in a separate article. The article may seem a little too technical at times, but I believe that by providing you with the facts, you are much less likely to use the wrong products.
So how do you currently store your collection? My money is on PVC sleeves and ring binders? Or maybe just a folder from a cheap chain store or worse an old cardboard box? Well, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that all of these methods are degrading your collection as we speak!
So let’s start with these sleeves as they will do the most damage to your collection. The most common type of plastic sleeve is made of PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) or at least a very similar material, which will mean that a “plasticizer” has been added to it during manufacture. This “plasticizer” is what keeps the sleeve flexible, the more they add the more flexible (plastic) it becomes, but unfortunately for us this also means it has a similar effect on many of the inks used to sign the autographs, stored in them because the plasticizer acts as a kind of solvent on the ink, just as the solvent will soften the paint.
This effect is particularly noticeable with metal-type pens and markers, as the plasticizer will absorb some or even all of the ink, which then causes the ink to partially adhere to the plastic wrap instead of your photo. The same plasticizer can also affect certain photos and images over time, so you can get not only a disappearing signature, but a disappearing or distorted image!
In addition, during the manufacturing process, PVC passes through rollers coated with fatty acids (to prevent the material from sticking to them). As a result, both sides of the pockets (and that includes the top fillers) get dirty, and we don’t want fatty acids coming into contact with our autographs, do we!
Note. You may sometimes read that you can “smell” the cheaper sleeves and that proper acid free sleeves don’t have that smell, but this is not entirely untrue and may be something to do with the “fatty acids” mentioned above!
How many items should I put in each sleeve? Ideally just one, but we don’t live in a perfect world, so two photos side by side should be your maximum. If you do this, make sure you put an acid-free, lignin-free separator between the photos. Why? Well, photographic paper contains both acid and lignin, and these chemicals break down the paper, turning it yellow (this is why old newspapers turn yellow). So having them back to back will age the photo paper twice as fast, turning your precious autographs yellow even faster. Keeping only two photos per envelope will also reduce the risk of scratching each image when removed.
If you store multiple photos in each envelope, you may have noticed the way some signatures are reproduced on the back of other photos. This is again caused by the chemicals in the photo papers acting on the inks and is another reason why you should only keep 2 signed photos back to back in one envelope.
I also do not recommend storing more than one album page or signed card per envelope, as I have seen the effects of one sheet of highly acidic paper on top of another when stored in this situation. Some inks can also transfer from one page to another, so that’s something to keep in mind as well. There are special sleeves with several pockets for the smaller album pages etc so you don’t have to waste an A4 sleeve on an item.
Since you may only be storing two photos per envelope, it may be worth adding a divider to prevent damage from bending and cross-contamination. If you intend to do this, make sure that the amplifiers you use are again acid free; otherwise, you’re just taking a step back. You can buy acid-free and lignin-free spacers for this purpose, and they are usually available from the same suppliers as the sleeves. See my note on this at the end.
The solution to the sleeve problem is to use sleeves that are made from polyester, which is both stronger, optically much cleaner and most importantly free of those awful plasticizers or fatty acids!
Polyester (synthetic as opposed to natural) is a type of plastic most often sold under the trade name “Mylar”, although you won’t usually find that name used. These polyester sleeves are more expensive, but in my experience are sturdier and will last a lot longer than those cheap plastic sleeves from Staples or elsewhere, and of course won’t harm your precious collection.
You’ll find that polyester sleeves are much harder to find, and the staff at Staples will certainly have no idea what you’re talking about if you ask for polyester or Mylar sleeves, so don’t bother asking! You may find “copy safe” sleeves, although I’ve never seen one that says they’re polyester, and I believe they’re advertised as “copy safe” for the office market, and the copy safe wording is refers to its safe storage of photocopied items only. Even then I no doubt expect that they don’t carry any warranty that might actually mean anything! So my advice is to avoid them.
Now you may ask how do I know what a polyester sleeve looks like if I’ve never seen one. Well, since they are more expensive than regular or garden grade PVC sleeves, they will usually be branded or sold as such as they are sold with the conservation market in mind. Once you see a polyester sleeve and compare it to a regular cheap sleeve, you will see and feel the difference in quality right away.
In case you’re thinking of photo albums or similar, I’ve looked at hundreds of photo albums in many different shops, from Harrods, to specialist photo shops, to staples and even Poundland, and they’ve all been the same:- cheap plastic envelopes, cheap cardboard pages or even worse those awful pages with sticky lines on them to hold the pictures, ugh! If you’re storing your collection in something like this, slap yourself and sort through them now!
Note. The commonly used “top loading” is not made of polyester and should not be used to store your signed photos for any length of time. They may be useful for transporting newly signed photos from a show, but that should be their limited use. Photos can also stick to top loaders very quickly, especially if the photos are newly developed and the top loaders are newly manufactured, so be warned! Top loaders are hard plastic sleeves where only the top edge is open and are often seen at trade shows or by some dealers to ship items.
So remember its polyester sleeves you’re looking for if you want to store photos or anything with a signature.
One last thing, if we lived in an ideal world, we would always process all of our stock while wearing lint-free cotton gloves. This is due to the amount of oils and such that sit on our skin, which is then transferred to our precious autographs every time we touch them (do you wash your hands after eating that sticky bread!). Those fingerprints on all your photos are there because of all this nastiness and a lot of them will damage your photos and may become impossible to remove later. Lint free white cotton gloves are readily available from any good photography store, a pair will not only last you a very long time but also prevent all that dirt from attaching to your precious collection.
Everything I’ve written here comes from my twenty years of experience working with autographs and making the mistakes I’ve mentioned here. You can’t bake a cake without breaking eggs, as they say, and I’ve certainly broken a few in my time! So I hope you will take what I have written and help you keep your collection in the condition it should be.
I hope you enjoyed this article and found it both interesting and informative. I’ll cover storage, conservation, presentation, and mounting and framing in other articles, so stay tuned!
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