How to Store, Display and Care
for your Numismatic Collection
-- by William H. Cowburn, Jr.
As collectors, we tend to spend a significant amount of time and effort looking for just the right item to add to our collection. We read books covering that particular item. We study the history of the time period it was issued in and/or investigate the artist that created it. When we find an example that we consider purchasing, it has to have eye appeal or else be so scarce that we are willing to accept lower quality for the chance to own it. The price has to be fair and we expect that the seller will guarantee authenticity. Many times the search for just the right coin (or medal or paper money or token, etc.) can take months or years before we find the piece that we simply must have. Finally, after we have acquired that long sought for item, many collectors think that the 'work' has ended. However, much of the real effort required of collectors just begins with the acquisition itself because now we must do all we can to keep that item from deteriorating in condition.
What do we do with this cherished addition to our collection now that we finally have it? Whether we are collecting modern issues, ancient coins or anything in between, the collector is faced with the 'problem' of how to keep their collection in as good of condition as possible. This concern with preserving historic items can stem from either quite altruistic views or from a purely selfish outlook. Either viewpoint will lead to the conclusion that these items must be preserved in the best manner possible.
The collector that realizes they are only temporary caretakers of the item will understand that taking the best possible care of their numismatic items will ensure that future collectors will be able to enjoy and learn from these items as much as the current collector. Think of a coin from ancient Greece or Rome and try to visualize how many hands it has passed through over the course of its existence. The collector of today must realize that even if they own the coin for a long period of time - say 40 or 50 years - that this amount of time is but the blink of an eye compared to the time that the ancient coin has been around. Taking the best care possible of that item will preserve it for future generations of collectors to study and enjoy.
Of course, the collector that does not think of such long term benefits to future generations still has a stake in preserving their items. This type of collector will recognize that it is in their own self-interest to keep the item in as high of a condition as possible so that it retains its value in the marketplace. This collector does not want any harm to come to his collection because coins with damage are worth less than those that are in better condition.
Perhaps for most of us it is not a question of either being altruistic (thinking of future generations of collectors) or being selfish (looking out for our own self-interest) but rather a blend of these two ideas that drives us to properly care for what we collect.
How should a collector store, display and care for the items in their collection? Preserving our numismatic items takes some time and effort, but it can be pleasurable and should be part of the regular procedure that all collectors follow after a purchase. This article assumes the numismatic items in question are coins, but the same general processes apply to tokens and medals as well as coins. The basics listed here will also apply to currency, but certain storage and handling issues will be different for any items made of paper.
Storage and Display of Coins
There are many different options available for collectors to use for housing and storing their coins. All have certain advantages, but unfortunately all have their own drawbacks. This means that a collector needs to examine the options available and settle upon the one that suits them best. Of course, you may find that one storage method is perfect for you for one series that you collect and that a totally different storage method is perfect for you for a different area of your collection. As you read over these options and the pros and cons related to each method of storage, think about how the storage system would work in your own individual situation. Here are some of the more popular methods used to store coins today.
Made of plastic with 2 pockets, these are very popular for several reasons. First, they are relatively inexpensive. In addition, they allow the viewer to easily see all sides of the coin. The second pocket of the flip generally has an information card inserted into it that allows the owner to list all pertinent information about the coin. Flips take up very little room allowing for storage of large collections in relatively little space. It is also very easy to remove the coin for closer inspection and to weigh the coin.
Generally there are 2 types of flips - PVC and non-PVC. PVC is simply shorthand for polyvinyl chloride which is used as a softener in plastics. This additive, PVC, gives flips a softness (pliability) and ease of handling. However, PVC is a serious problem for coins that are stored in holders containing it. This chemical eventually will leach out of the flip onto the coin. PVC will then eat into the surface of the coin causing damage. Do NOT buy or use flips that contain PVC!
Non PVC Flips
Flips that do not contain PVC are generally considered to be archival quality. These types of flips are safe for long-term storage of your coins but even they have some drawbacks. These flips are stiffer and more brittle than the ones that contain PVC. This means that they have a tendency to crack or break allowing the atmosphere to react with the coin. A cracked or broken flip also exposes the coin to other physical dangers. When the flip is broken, the coin can be exposed to staples or other sharp objects without any barrier to protect it. Another 'problem' with these flips is they tend to cut the skin if not handled properly.
When using flips, keep in mind that larger and heavier coins tend to move around inside the pocket of the flip. This means that the coin is rubbing against the plastic and against any contaminants that might also be in the flip with the coin. PCGS has recently warned against using PVC flips even for short term storage because of damage they have seen with coins sent to them for authentication and grading. Even when non-PVC flips are used, care must be taken when placing the coin into the flip and when removing the coin (be sure to cup the flip so the coin can be dropped in or removed without rubbing against the sides).
2 X 2's
These are generally made of cardboard with cutouts of various sizes to hold different denomination coins or different sizes of tokens and medals. The most popular of these holders fold in half and the outside dimensions of the cardboard holder will then be 2" by 2" - hence the nickname 2x2. There is a thin plastic film attached to the cardboard that allows the viewer to see both sides of the numismatic item. Most of these 2x2's require staples to close the holder although some have an adhesive on them that will seal when pressed together.
These holders are convenient, inexpensive and provide some protection from the elements for your coins. However, there are quite a few weaknesses with this storage medium that the collector must be aware of.
These holders generally have some 'cardboard dust' laying on the surfaces that will be next to the coin. This dust is a byproduct of the manufacturing process used to create these holders and if left in contact with your coin the dust may cause some unusual toning. The cardboard dust should be removed before placing your coin in the holder. However, the method used to remove the dust can create even more problems that the dust itself. Do NOT use your breath to blow the dust off of the holder. Doing so will introduce moisture into the holder that will cause damage to you coin. Use a can of pressurized air (this will be dry rather than moist) or simply wipe the dust off with a clean cloth. Be aware that static electricity will tend to hold the dust to the plastic film, so removing all of the dust might be difficult.
Cardboard 2 X 2 Holders
Another serious problem with using these holders is one that can be easily remedied. The problem comes from the use of staples to close the holder. If you use staples, be sure to use a pair of pliers or vice grips to flatten the staple as soon as you have put the coin in the 2x2. If the staple is not flattened, the part of the staple that stands away from the holder will more than likely come into contact with other coins that you have stored and cause scratches. Collectors tend to store their coins that are housed in 2x2 holders in boxes. The holders (and therefore the coins) are pressed against one another. When a holder is removed from the box to examine the coin, an un-flattened staple can easily scratch a coin that is next to it.
Some other considerations for the collector deciding whether to use 2x2's include the following:
- The edge of the coin might not be visible for examination
- An accurate weight cannot be made without removing the coin from the holder. Removal is not as simple as from a flip.
- The plastic cover is very thin and subject to tears which will expose the coin to the atmosphere and to abrasive objects.
These are the same size as flips or 2x2's and have been popular with collectors for many years. They are inexpensive and the paper provides a significant amount of room for the collector write information about the coin inside. Many collectors of early copper use these envelopes along with cotton pouches that fit into the paper envelope. The coin slides into the cotton pouch which provides some additional environmental protection.
Drawbacks with their use include:
- You cannot see the coin without removing it from the envelope.
- If the paper has high sulfur content, it will react with the coin (especially when a cotton pouch is not used).
- With handling, the paper can easily tear
There are many coin albums in the marketplace for the collector to consider. While these are convenient for organizing your collection, there are many factors to consider before deciding which is best for you.
There are folders available that allow you to press a coin into an opening. Generally, the openings are identified by date and mintmark for each coin issued. However, with folders, one side of your coin is not visible. This is because the folder is designed with an opaque material that is behind the coin when it is pressed into the opening. Folders also do not have anything that covers or protects the coins when the folder is opened. But, folders are inexpensive and a great way for a new collector to organize sets of coins collected from circulation such as Lincoln Memorial Cents or the State Quarters.
Popular albums that allow both sides of the coin to be viewed are available from companies like Whitman, Dansco and Littleton. These albums have pages that are slightly thicker than the coins that are intended to be placed into them. The pages have plastic slides on each side with cutouts in the page for each date and mintmark of the coin the album is designed for. The collector removes one slide and places their coin in the proper hole leaving the other slide in place to keep the coin from falling through the page. The slide is then replaced, taking care to be sure that the coin is below the surface the slide will move across. If the coin is setting too high in the page, the plastic will rub against the coin as it is moved into place causing damage to the surface of the coin.
While albums are beautiful for storing and displaying your collection, the following items must be considered before the numismatist decides to use them:
- Albums are bulky and take much more storage room than flips.
- Care must be exercised when placing coins into an album with slides.
- Some older albums used PVC which is very dangerous to your coins.
- If the pages contain sulfur, this will lead to toning of your coins.
Hard Plastic Holders
Plastic holders made of a material such as Lucite are available for storing your coins. Generally these holders come in three pieces - a solid front, a solid back and a center piece that has holes cut for your coins to fit into. These holders come in a variety of colors and shapes and can be custom designed for your own personal collection. The 3 sections are usually held together with plastic screws.
The plastic used to make these holders is inert and generally considered safe for long term storage of your coins. These holders are beautiful and provide excellent protection for your collection, however they too have some drawbacks to consider before buying.
Plastic Shell Cases
- These holders are bulky and will require more storage space than flips, 2x2's or paper envelopes.
- In order to see the edge or weigh the coin, it must be removed from the holder which requires more effort than other storage mediums.
- These holders are more expensive than other storage mediums
This term is used as slang for the hard plastic holders used by third party grading services such as PCGS, NGC, ANACS, ICG, SEGS, etc. The holders are made of inert plastic and provide excellent long term storage for your coins. Some of the services guarantee the authenticity as well as the grade they assign to the coin.
Coins Encased in Plastic Slabs by Third Party Grading Services
Collectors can send their coin to the third party grading services for grading and encapsulation or they can purchase coins in the marketplace that have already been entombed in plastic. If you choose to use these slabs as a means of storing your collection, keep the following in mind:
- These holders are bulky and require a significant amount of space.
- Albums are available to organize your collection of slabbed coins, but that requires even more space for storage.
- In order to see the edge or weigh the coin, it must be removed from the holder.
- These holders are sealed to be tamper resistant, so if you wish to remove the coin, the holder will be destroyed.
- When you want to show your collection to friends or family, they are not able to actually touch the coin.
Other Methods of Storage
There are plenty of other storage methods employed by collectors. Some coins are stored in rolls. The rolls can be made of either plastic or paper. If you have rolls made of plastic, be sure that you do not have some older ones that contain PVC. If you have coins stored in paper rolls, be aware that the chemicals in the paper will tend to tone the coins over time.
Some coins are simply stored loose in something like a piggybank. While this method is fine for low value material or coins that are worth bullion content, the collector must be aware that the coins will rub over each other when the bank or jar is moved and that movement might damage any higher grade coins or those that had a numismatic premium.
There are non-PVC plastic shells that fit snuggly over a single coin. These shells are in 2 pieces and snap together protecting the coin from damage. Unfortunately, this method of storage does not provide a convenient place to list data about the coin. Many collectors will then place the coin (already inside the plastic shell) in a flip and list the pertinent data on a card in the other pocket of the flip.
There are also plastic boxes that snap together holding a coin inside. Usually the coin is surrounded by cardboard or foam inside the hard plastic holder. Be very cautious of using foam with any numismatic collectible. Foam tends to disintegrate over time and will adhere to the coin. It can be very difficult to remove and cause significant damage to your coin.
While there are many other methods that collectors use for storage - plastic wrap, aluminum foil, canvas bags, etc. - the methods listed above are the most popular and cover the best ways of caring for your collection.
Care of Your Collection
While a complete discussion of caring for your collection would require a book rather than just this article, some basic steps are listed below.
Your collection should be stored in an environment with low humidity. Higher humidity levels enhance chemical reactions with metal. Ideally, the humidity levels should also remain constant to keep condensation from forming.
To help maintain an environment with low humidity, all collectors should use moisture absorbing packets commonly known as silica gel desiccants. These packets can be placed in the box along with your coins. They will need to be changed on a regular basis and more frequently if you live in a humid area.
All coins should be immediately removed from any storage medium that contains PVC. These coins should be soaked in acetone to remove any PVC contamination. Acetone is a solvent that will remove dirt and grease but it will not strip away microscopic layers of the coin like a silver dip will. Thus, acetone is safe to use on your silver and gold coins, but proper precautions must be followed when using this chemical. Please read and follow all safety precautions when using any chemical. After using acetone to remove PVC from your coin, thoroughly rinse the coin in clean water and dry it completely before storing it in a non-PVC holder.
Coin Damaged by Storage in PVC Flip
As far as possible, your coins should not be allowed to rub against one another. Damage to your collection will occur over time if this is allowed to happen. Be especially alert for any sharp edges that your coins may come into contact with (such as staples).
If you use flips or 2x2's for coin storage, do not use rubber bands to bundle groups of holders together. Rubber bands will leave a streak of toning across the coin that becomes etched into the surface making it very difficult to remove.
When handling your coins, use gloves and hold the coins by their edges. Using care in handling your collection will keep oils from your skin being introduced onto the surface of the coin. It is quite possible to leave your fingerprint on a coin if you do not use gloves when handling it. Also, do not breathe on the coins as you will contaminate them with saliva.
Collecting is fun but we have a duty to try to protect our numismatic treasures for future generations of collectors. In addition, we will enjoy our collection more today when we take proper care of it. Use archival quality materials whenever possible to minimize many of the risks of damage to your collection. This article is intended to raise awareness in each of us to potential problems in our care, storage and handling of our collections. Let's leave the collecting world a better place for our having been part of it!