By David Moriah
OK, sports fans! It’s time to play “Jeopardy for Collectors!”
Host Alex Trebek: The answer is – “Smash it and take the card out.”
Contestant: What does the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately do when they receive a donation of a “slabbed” card?
Contestant: I’ll take “Care and Conservation” for $400.
Trebek: The answer is – “Take it out and let it breathe.”
Contestant: What does the Hall of Fame immediately do when it receives a ball that is in a plastic cube or sphere?
Contestant: “Care and Conservation” for $500.
Trebek: The answer is – “Light, temperature and humidity.”
Contestant: What are the three worst enemies of any piece of sports memorabilia?
Trebek: Correct again! And that’s all the time we have today. We’ll see you right here tomorrow for another round of “Jeopardy for Collectors.”
Whether you know it or not, a silent war is being waged on your prized collection. The ink of your autographs is slowly fading away; the acid-laden paper of your photographs, ticket stubs and magazines is deteriorating; the fabric of the jersey hung proudly in your den is weakening every moment of every day.
This was the depressing message a SCD reporter came away with after being invited to attend the inaugural Care and Conservation Workshop recently at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. Open to the public for a fee of $300, the workshop included a backstage tour of the museum to see how the fabulous Hall of Fame collection is preserved, along with detailed instructions on the best and most up-to-date methods of holding off the inevitable deterioration of cardboard, ink, horsehide, etc. A highlight of the one-and-a-half-day event was a catered dinner in the elegant space of the Hall’s “Gallery of Plaques.”
While there was much information presented and many practical tips for collectors to consider, the most startling piece of news for the hobby world was the museum’s disdain for what has become the Holy Grail of card collecting – the slab, a plastic encapsulation designed to protect valuable items (cards, autographs, ticket stubs, etc.) and prevent fraud.
Yes, the museum staff immediately breaks open every slabbed item donated to their collection (Editor’s note: Key word there is “donated,” not items on loan).
The problem with the slab? With several different products for slabbing in the marketplace, the museum has no way of knowing whether any particular petroleum-based plastic slab is likely to cause damage in the long-term to a vulnerable card or other paper item encased in the slab. The practice of slabbing began recently enough that there is not a long enough track record to be certain that damage will not result over time.
“There are other reasons why cards in slabs are removed,” explained Sue MacKay, director of Collections at the Hall of Fame Museum. “For instance, thicker slabs require more storage space, but the main reason we do it is we’re just not sure if the slabs might eventually damage the cards.”
Instead, the museum places the item in a “Mylar” sleeve. Without turning this into a chemistry lesson, let’s see what one educational website says about the product:
“You may be familiar with Mylar in shiny helium-filled balloons, solar filters, space blankets, protective plastic coatings or insulators . . . Mylar is the brand name for a special type of stretched polyester film.” (chemistry.about.com)
The most important property of Mylar is that it is “chemically inert,” meaning it has outstanding aging properties for any item that comes into contact with it. According to MacKay, storing paper items in Mylar is the industry standard for museums today, and the Hall of Fame abides by this standard and rejects the popular slab.
“Storage in any plastic container is not recommended due to the chemical composition of plastic and potential interaction with the stored material,” MacKay stated on behalf of the Hall of Fame.
SCD reached out to both PSA and SGC for comment on this subject, with no response from either company.
Another chemically inert product is polypropylene, which is slightly less clear than polyester like Mylar, but is also considered acceptable for long-term preservation.
There are several suppliers of these products for collectors to consider, but the Hall of Fame currently works with Gaylord Archival (Gaylord.com). A Gaylord representative came to the Care and Conservation workshop and displayed a wide range of products geared specifically to sports collectibles. (He also left each participant with a small “goodie bag” of samples.)
The Gaylord catalog, a massive volume of 372 pages, includes such products as acid-free boxes for card collections, a baseball bat box and Mylar or polypropylene sleeves for magazines, newspapers and a nine-card album page.
As you might expect, acid-free and chemically inert products are not cheap. For example, a package of 25 nine-card pages costs $14.30, or just under 60 cents per sheet. An acid-free baseball bat box with a clear Mylar lid runs just under $20. Simple Mylar card sleeves are more affordable, available in a package of 100 at $4.85.
he problem of unknown plastic being in potentially destructive contact with an item is compounded in the case of balls encased in either a plastic sphere or cube. Here, an additional problem is the lack of air circulation in the container. Deep inside baseballs are strong adhesives holding the ball together. Over time those adhesives are released through the porous stitching and the horsehide or cowhide “skin” of the ball. Without air circulation, a chemical reaction can occur which eats away at the ink of an autograph and can also cause discoloration of the ball.
The solution? For the Hall of Fame, it’s placing balls in acid-free boxes. A Mylar window allows for signatures to still be displayed. This takes care of both problems – plastic being in contact with the surface of the ball as well as potentially destructive chemical reactions due to the lack of air circulation. A lower cost solution for the budget-conscious collector would be to purchase cubes that avoid plastic being in direct contact with the ball, then drilling a small hole in the back of the cube to ensure air circulation.
Now, before panic sets in, let me explain that the Hall of Fame is concerned about its collection remaining intact looking ahead several generations.
“We want our collection to look just as good in a couple of hundred years as it does today,” explained MacKay.
This 200-year standard may not apply to the average SCD reader who might only be thinking of passing on a treasured collection to a child or grandchild, so extreme (and expensive!) measures may not be necessary if that’s your goal. However, there might be a few special items even a casual collector may want to set aside for museum quality care and conservation. And, as museum staffers pointed out, these care and conservation practices apply to non-sports treasures as well, such as family photographs, scrapbooks, wedding dresses, etc.
First, and most easily controlled by amateur collectors are the “big three” of the evil forces that threaten private collections – light, temperature and humidity.
“If you remember nothing else from this workshop,” somberly intoned Jim Gates, library director of the Hall of Fame, “remember that light, temperature and humidity are the most important factors to control in preserving your collection.”
Surely, it should be no inconvenience to the average collector to ensure that prized autographs and other items are kept out of direct sunlight, and as much as possible stored where temperatures are moderate and humidity doesn’t swing wildly. The good news is that while heat is damaging, cold conditions are not, so if in doubt store in a cool, dark place.
Another area where simple, practical measures can make a difference for the average collector is in caring for hats and uniforms. Though it’s painful advice for fans who wish to display a prized jersey by hanging it in a den or trophy room, the best way to preserve any fabric item is to store it flat, ideally in an acid-free environment. If you have too many jerseys to display all at once, a common sense measure is to store any extra uniform items flat vs. hanging in a closet. When storing, it’s best to carefully flatten the item out, removing any wrinkles that may settle in to form a permanent crease.
If you must hang and display, pad the shoulders carefully, especially if your treasure is an older flannel jersey. This reporter and collector learned that lesson painfully. A vintage 1963 New York Mets jersey in my possession is showing significant shoulder deterioration after spending many years on a wooden coat hanger. For such wear and tear, along with other creases and some loosening of number stitching on the jersey, I was advised to seek the services of a “fabric conservator,” ideally located with the advice of local art museums. Another resource for locating a fabric conservator is the website of the American Institute of Conservators – aic.org.
Hats should be stored upright and supported with tissue paper. Believe it or not, Gaylord will sell you a 1-pound bag of “un-buffered shredded archival tissue paper” at $15.30 for padding hats, uniforms or other fabrics!
The workshop was a treasure trove of such tips and leads for products and expertise for anyone wishing to properly display and maintain sports memorabilia or other family treasures. In addition, we were given VIP access to see and even touch (carefully, and with 100 percent cotton gloves!) several special pieces not on display to the public in the museum.
As an example of how the museum treats donated scrapbooks, and how you should do so if you have one that’s slowly deteriorating, we were shown the personal scrapbook of Mrs. Lou Gehrig. The item was donated by her to the Hall of Fame and contained page after page of newspaper clippings she had painstakingly assembled to chronicle the Iron Horse’s great career.
Newsprint is particularly acidic and prone to deterioration, and older scrapbook paper is as well, making the combination particularly troublesome and vulnerable. Museum staff are in the middle of a project of carefully removing each newspaper article from Mrs. Gehrig’s book, placing them in safe Mylar sleeves and onto new acid-free scrapbook paper. The Hall of Fame estimates the entire project will cost approximately $13,000 when it’s completed.
The experience of poring over the actual newspaper clippings that Mrs. Gehrig cut out at her kitchen table 80 or so years ago was mesmerizing, and coming upon the section where the articles told of his visits to the Mayo Clinic as ALS began to consume his body was heartbreaking.
The Hall of Fame intends to make the Care and Conservation Workshop an annual event, so keep an eye on baseballhall.org for information about the 2017 session.
Those who purchase a Hall of Fame membership will receive plenty of information about next year’s workshop as time gets closer. Hall of Fame memberships begin at $50 for adults and $25 for children under 12.
This reporter’s advice? Attend the Care and Conservation Workshop if you are serious about preserving your collection, and in the event you are selected for a future game of “Jeopardy for Collectors,” you will be ready to run the table!
TOP 5 TAKEAWAYS
The Care and Conservation Workshop put on by the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum had many conservation tips. Here are the top five things to keep in mind:
1. Watch out for light, heat and humidity! Never store an autographed item in direct sunlight or under bright lights. Cool is better than hot. Invest in a dehumidifier if you live in an especially humid environment.
2. Although it’s now conventional hobby wisdom to slab your cards, with even T206 Wagner cards encased at this point, think long and hard about the decision of whether to slab or not. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the question.
3. If you have valuable cards that are not slabbed, purchase Mylar card sleeves or album pages and carefully transfer your cards to safer storage materials as soon as possible.
4. For autographed baseballs, take them out of plastic spheres and cubes while storing them. Use plastic containers for short-term display only, and consider drilling a small hole in the plastic for air circulation.
5. Value tip – Buy a Pigma Micron Pen for all your autographs. Its “permanent, pigment-based ink will not react to heat, light or water.” Gaylord sells a three-pen set for only $8.90, or you might find them in a local art supply store. Comes in black or red ink only.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.