Calvet M. Hahn – Restoration and Preservation

Jan 1 , 1997



© Calvet M. Hahn 1997

Philatelists are almost entirely concerned with paper restoration, preservation or reproduction.  Few worry about other postal artifacts such as stagecoaches, mailbags, uniforms, or dispensing machines.  However, paper restoration is just a small part of the total picture of restoration, preservation or reproduction and the concepts involved have been argued over for many hundreds of years. Until 1880, there was no known original work from the workshops of the 4th century B.C. Greek sculptors.  The 1st century BC Rhodian group of the Laocoon in the Vatican, a key piece in 19th century aesthetic analysis of Greek art, is now known to be a copy, for the broken original was discovered in the last forty years in an Italian cave.  The ancients did not look upon reproductions with the distain we do today.  For example, when the ‘tyrant-slayers’ statue was removed from Athens by the Persians after the battle of Salamis, the Athenians had another made.  When the Alexandrians recovered the original, both were exhibited on the Areopagus.  However, all we know today is an ancient copy of the Athenian copy.

One of the most celebrated ancient monuments is the Parthenon, but how many are aware that an excellent reproduction is to be found in Athens, Tennessee today?  Based upon close measurement of the original it is probably closer to what the ancient Greeks saw than the broken down building still standing in Athens.

When we think of ancient Rome or Athens we have an image of a white marble Forum or Acropolis.  It was this aesthetic vision that led to the appearance of Federal buildings in Washington, D.C., but it is a false vision.  Those of you who have visited the Metropolitan Museum in New York and closely examined the ancient statues will have noted that a number have flecks of red, blue, yellow or other colored paints.  The ancient world was as colorful as an Oriental bazaar rather than the austere white marble that the 19th century saw.  The statues were painted; the buildings were painted.

What does this have to do with philately?  Well, the concept of reproduction and its acceptance in the mid-19th century was the same that inspired Hussey and Scott to make their reproductions of stamps.  It was an accepted theory and practice.  The reproductions were ‘almost as good’ or even better than damaged originals.

Turning again to the art field, how much of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is as he painted it rather than as some restorer visualized it?  Ten percent? Fifteen percent?  Or take the Sistine Chapel where a major debate among the restorers and preservation experts has been the degree to which the smoking candles of three plus centuries, as well as the natural darkening of the coating that Michaelangelo placed on the original have affected the colors.  It now seems that the best concept is that the original was in bright, almost Fauve-like colors of the late 19th century.  In a like manner, Rembrandt’s famed Night Watch is now known to be a midday scene once the obscuring varnishes were removed.  Our aesthetic values are very time dependent and that which was acceptable a hundred years ago may not be acceptable now.  This aesthetic shift affects how we view our stamps and covers.

There has long been a tradition of conservation or preservation, particularly of paper, that has been associated with museums and libraries.  A key objective is to prevent further deterioration of the paper, maintaining it as close as possible in an unchanging state in the face of environmental hazards.  However, this is not the situation involved in most philatelic restoration.  Unfortunately the emphasis upon pretty exhibitable items leads far too many philatelic dealers and collectors into the phase of restoration ‘enhancement.’  For at least a hundred years now, the enhancing process has been an integral part of philately.

John Seybold was one of the first major cover collectors.  He did not like the sometimes-ragged edges of covers caused by the wear from their contents.  Consequently, he is known to have often trimmed the edges and had them re-glued so as to appear to be a solid fold.  Ex-Seybold covers need to be carefully examined to see if they are covers or separated backs and fronts of the same cover.  Does it matter?  The answer depends upon your view of restoration.  I have several examples of this type of restoration but am not showing them because of the problem of searching my bank vaults for the examples, which were sold to me as ‘full covers.’

One of the better-known earlier ‘restorers’ was Sam Singer.  There is a well-known philatelic book by him called The People with the Calumny, which illustrates a series of letters from the Stanley Gibbons firm to him ordering ‘repairs’ on many classic stamps such as the Afghan issues which are known with ‘bite’ cancels, the Hawaiian missionaries, Cape wood-blocks, and the Canadian 12d.  Restoration including filling in holes, piecing together parts of stamps, removing spots, adding edges (with the correct perforations), and making sure the added perforation is the rare twelve gauge rather than twelve and a half.  Similar correspondence has reportedly been seen from modern dealers.

Another early explorer in the field was Henry Needham, whom Elliott Perry hints used penitentiary prisoner Wolle to fix his covers, adding adhesives to covers handled by the Burger Brothers as well as creating some strange locals.  He is also known to have moved stamps from one cover to another to get a prettier combination as in the Cole locals.

Ferrari kept a man on his staff to handle the tasks of curating and restoring his stamps and covers, while Alfred Caspary was chided by Sir John Marriott, keeper of the Royal Collection, for ‘gilding his lilies.’ As far as I can determine he was the first to use the newly created detergents to ‘freshen’ stamps; he used sufficient that he removed flakes of ink from his Moldavian bulls so that they were no longer platable.  When he took the stamps off the covers, ‘freshened’ them, he returned them to the covers using 20th century adhesive, creating an expertizing problem in determining whether the adhesive was on the cover originally when it was mailed.

Juhring was involved in the early handling of the Heard correspondence and donated much of it to Yale University.  He may well be the party responsible for the only ‘reperforated’ U.S. stamp, the 90¢ 1860 Heard cover item, which was supposedly taken off the cover and made imperforate to fit the imperforate notation of early catalogs such as the 1916 Waterhouse, but later reperforated and put back on the cover, which was sold to Needham and later sold in the Ishikawa sale.

A large number of the leading collectors of covers from the 1930s to the present have used restorers to work on their gems.  But, the major users have been dealers who find that a restored cover brings additional revenue well in excess of the restoration cost.  Thus, most leading philatelic restorers are booked months in advance when collectors seek to use them.  Dealers seem to have long-term arrangements and special quantity rates in a number of cases.  The well-known Donald Malcolm sale is a good example where almost every cover has been restored.  Looking down the rows of exhibits at major national or international shows one can see restoration after restoration, perhaps as many as 60-70% of the items displayed.

Conservation or preservation involves doing nothing that cannot be reversed.  It does include deacidification of paper and the use of fungicides.  It also involves the unfolding of letters to reduce the strains on folds, which is why many manuscripts are sold in flat non-acidic sheet mounts.  The question of cleaning is more controversial, for it can involve abrasion, the removed of significant notations or applications that affect the sizing so that much of what is termed cleaning is really either restoration or enhancement.

Restoration goes considerably further.  It involves an attempt to recreate the appearance of the item when it was new.  Even in the museum field there is considerable debate about just how far to go.  A general rule of thumb is that the restoration must be obvious to concerned parties.  That is why the Greek vase collection at the Metropolitan Museum has obvious lines where pieces were put together and white plaster where pieces are missing. It is why plaster bricks are included in Mayan temple reliefs to replace those bricks that were removed to museums.  Reattached heads and arms on statues clearly show the break marks.  Actually some collecting areas also accept restoration that is fairly extensive.  In classic Japanese sword collecting, the swords are sent to a restorer to polish them and bring out the marks on the blade, removing the rust and sharpening them.  They are then like new.

Philately does not accept restoration.  If it did then it would be acceptable to replace damaged perforation, remove stains and, in the case of gum on unused stamps, replace that which has been removed.  In the Philatelic Foundation’s Opinions IV book, Frank Mandel presents a good discussion of various restoration and preservation techniques, most of which are fairly mild.   But, as the Foundation footnote adds to his comment about resizing paper, alterations that can be detected by regular or ultra-violet light are not acceptable, nor is the use of chemicals that affect the feel or composition of paper, which is what resizing does. However, this is not necessarily what happens to items sent for certificates.  Caspary’s ‘freshening’ of stamps which are replaced on cover with 20th century glue should fall under the unacceptable alteration definition, but this has not been the case from personal observation of such items in the expertizing process.  But collectors should be aware the status of such items may change in the future and the acceptable today become unacceptable tomorrow.

Much of what goes on in philately today can only be called enhancement—the making of the item sufficiently attractive that judges and others will admire the beauty of the piece being exhibited.  To the extent the piece can be enhanced without being detected, it is fair game to do so   For a few rare pieces, full scale restoration is acceptable. For example, there are two covers with the U.S. 2¢ Blackjack Atherton shift, one has the bottom third of the stamp restored; yet it has been offered for a price in excess of $50,000. The Swedish ‘ three skilling banco’ error stamp has been repeatedly sold without any notation that is reperforated at top and has a cut across the face.

At this point, I should like to show a series of covers to see if you can tell which ones, if any, are restored.  Four are unique examples insofar as I know, one has two other copies and the sixth is known with more than a handful of examples; this cover is ex-Knapp.


How covers should be displayed and stored is one of the problem areas.  A good deal has been written about the dangers of certain types of pouchette mountings.  Manuscript people tend to show their material unfolded in archival sheeting, but this is not true of philately.  Most of the mounts used I have found have not damaged the material, provided it is examined every year or so and is taken out to see that over-packing does not occur.  However, seen here is a type of mounting pouchette used by Kover King, which does discolor.  It is unsightly, but I have not seen that it damaged the contents.  A second type of plasticized mount has been much warned about because it has an oil-based plasticizer, which may transfer to the c over.  Here are several examples that were in this type of mount; that was in writing up the Gallagher Confederate collection where some of the address writing did transfer to the mount, possibly because of the degree of pressured used in storing them.  With care, and annual inspection, even these mounts can be used, but caution is required.  The talk of damage is largely exaggerated.

It is becoming increasingly popular for exhibitors to mount their material on contrasting color backgrounds to create a border effect.  As specialists in mounting exhibits usually do this mounting, it is advisable to make sure that they are using non-acid archival papers.  One of the major New York stampless collectors was Robert Hutchinson.  There were a number of covers shown me, which I could not purchase at the time as I was not first in line, but which when into the Hutchinson holding and which I was later able to obtain.  The problem is that Mr. Hutchinson used construction par to mount his covers and a high proportion ended up acid-burned even though he had held them less than five years.  While it is not ex-Hutchinson, seen here is an example of such acid burning.  I know of no ready way to restore such material, but have not sent any to a professional restorer.

Tears and Separations

The fixing of tears and separations falls between the areas of conservation and restoration.  When not described, the repair can be termed deceptive enhancement.  A number of auction houses sell such material without a warning notice.  One famous collector, Hind, used to mount his covers with adhesive tape as seen here.  Several ex-Hind covers were on display at Amphilex with the tape removed.  Removing the tape skinned the paper, which would have had to be built up by skillful restoration not to show.  Others have used Scotch tape to mount in the same fashion.

In the past, the most widely used method of fixing tears was a glued piece of paper from the cover or selvage from stamps or Scotch tape.  Scotch tape has the disadvantage of generating ugly stains where the color migrates into the stamp or cover.  Three M’s (Minnesota Mining) replacement was Magic Tape advertised as ‘non-yellowing’ and ‘non-staining’ as recently as several years ago.

As can be seen here, Scotch tape not only stains the cover, it can migrate through and stain the page upon which the cover has been mounted.  An example of Magic Tape staining is also shown.  It doesn’t yellow, just as advertised, but it does leave an ugly gray stain.

The combination of the misleading Magic Tape advertising and the use by libraries and museums led me to use it extensively for cover restorations in the past.  As I discovered its staining property, I began to remove it, and, as with Scotch Tape, one method used was to employ Carbon Tet, a dangerous carcinogenic.  Despite all the care I took, the result was Carbon Tet poisoning.  I contacted a friend high up in a chemical firm to have him query 3M as to what else might be used.  It turned out that there were some thirty Scotch Tape formulations and while Carbon Tet could remove about twenty of them, the rest would not respond.  It also turned out that no real studies had been done on either product to see what damage might occur before the company advertised them.  The ingredient used to apply the Magic Tape adhesive to the tape was Heptane.  It is much less carcinogenic and can be used to remove tape and the adhesive as it softens the adhesive so that it can be rubbed or scrapped off and thus removed, but this does not work on paper that has been acid damaged or other wise to particularly delicate.

One of the conservation methods of mending separations is ‘silking’.  An example is the Faulstich example of the Bordentown stage cover.  When it was recently offered for sale it was not described as ‘silked’, causing a difference in the bidding between two customers, one of whom knew and the other who didn’t.  Not everyone wants a ‘silked’ cover!

A method I have occasionally used is the application of collodion, a transparent liquid.  It has been used to reattach stamps into block s by some dealers and will show up as ‘white’ in watermark fluid as well as show under ultra-violet examination.  However, I record a forty-year history where it has not seemingly damaged philatelic material.  Here is an ex-Faulstich cover written as New York was falling to the British that has had collodion used to bring separated pieces together.

More traditional conservative practice dictates the use of Japan paper and a wheat flour ‘glue’, for both can be readily removed and are non-damaging to the material.  Here are examples of both, and I can demonstrate the application of Japan paper to a cover.  Actually with the use of a scalpel, it is possible to thin the Japan paper down to the point where only a few fibers are holding the paper and there is almost no trace of the repair.  I don’t bother with this thinning as can be seen with this colonial cover.  It is also possible obtain various shades of Japan paper through archival houses such as Talas, which permits a close match to the original.

Collectors have often used stamp hinges as repair paper for small tears or holes.  If the hinges were in strips this might have been an even wider method of repair.  However, the small size meant they were not particularly effective for worn folds.  Further, there seems to be a problem with modern hinges in that the adhesive formulation is not as removable as it should be.  Another standard technique is to take a small piece from a flap or other portion of the envelope or folded letter and use it as a repair.  An example is this Gold Rush cover with damage on the face, which has been repaired using another piece of the same cover. This classifies as enhancement rather than conservation as it is not reversible.

It is advisable to have a selection of paper samples that can be used to match a cover.  These can be obtained from cheap covers or damaged covers of the period.  When purchasing a mixed lot there are some covers that just are not worth savings and these can be used for repairs.  Of course, what was not considered worth saving fifty years ago may be a prized example of a manuscript marking or rare handstamp today.  Some samples from my ‘repair’ box are shown here.

Promoted today is a self-stick archival repair tape.  I don’t have a track record on it, but having been caught in the past by the problems with Magic Tape, I’m just a bit dubious of any self-stick tape.  The experience of the self-stick stamps and the government’s problems in obtaining a satisfactory adhesive formulation do nothing to reassure me.  An example of this archival tape is shown, but you are on your own in using it. I don’t.


A first step in cleaning a cover is the very careful use of a brush followed by a soft eraser.  Soft brushing first to remove loose surface dirt is advised and either crumbled eraser articles or even soft breadcrumbs can be used to remove the lighter particles.  The erasing is always done from the center toward the outer edges in short strokes.  When there are tears, thins or scuffs, special care must be taken as the paper is particularly delicate.

Following the preliminary cleaning, it is necessary to consider pencil markings.  A number arte part of the postal markings and many ‘restorers’ who are not postal historians themselves have been known to ‘enhance’ the covers by removing vital markings such as ‘way origin markings’ or authenticating pencil rates duplicated in pen or handstamp.  Some remove prices and expert’s comments.  I don’t; I believe these are an integral part of the provenance of the cover.  Many pencil markings are made by sharper-than-necessary pencils and do cause indentations and abrasions in the paper.

For most stampless covers I have found the inks are fast enough that a simple washing can be used.  Few inks prior to 1866 will run, although a recently (25+ years) faked marking may well run. There are less than a handful of early markings that do run.  The bayberry inks of the Revolution, the deep blue of Hartford, several of the Caldwell, TX stampless inks; however, I have noted none from major cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.  A quick test is to take a bit of water on a blotter, Q-tip, or cleansing tissue and press it to the marking to see if there is any evidence the ink comes off.  Theoretically distilled water and acid free blotting paper should be used.  Most tap water is chlorinated or has a high mineral content that can cause future problems. Washing needs to be done with care because wet paper is particularly fragile and can tear.  While the professionals use a mesh net, I have found that a large platter is satisfactory.  It permits me to transfer the cover onto a blotting sheet without any problem.

What cleaning agent should be used:  Soap is a mix of fatty acids and alkalis with Castile soap using olive oil for its fat.  Modern detergent soaps have oils added as well. While it is best to use a professional cleanser such as Orvus I have found that Ivory seems to work well for cleaning and does not have glycerine or other added ingredients that might make a difference.  In the case of mild detergents it must be remembered that these can be stronger than you think and, while freshening a stamp or cover, may also cause irreversible damage such as removing specks of ink.  They also have added ingredients that create a foam.

Many stamps become sulphurated.  This is well known on the 1851 issue as well as the 4¢ Trans-Mississippi and the orange airmails.  The use of hydrogen peroxide does restore the color when a 2% or 3% solution is used.  Naturally, this solution needs to e removed after applying. I find a soft Q-tip with the solution is an effective applicator with another with water used to ‘rinse’.  An example of a sulphurated stamp is the 3¢ 1851, which is the exact shade of the rare plum, but which only cost me $1.  You can see where the reversal was done by hydrogen peroxide at lower left, but I kept the rest as it is for it matches a rare shade and can be used for reference.  A number of express labels, which I collect, do show sulphurization and need to be treated to adequately read them.

A weak chlorine solution such as Chloramine-T can be used for mild bleaching.  A solution is applied by a fine soft brush only to the stained areas and is then blotted.  When a white halo appears around the stain, the reaction has gone far enough. Careful washing after to remove all traces of the bleach is essential.  Potassium Permanganate is useful in solution to reduce ‘foxing’.  Again it must be washed out after.  As in all restoration, time and patience are critical rather than forcing harsher solutions.

Finally, PH balance needs to be restored and a spray of ‘Weeto’ can do this.  After wet work sizing also needs to be restored and a dip into something like Knox gelatin will serve to partially replace the size lost during the wet work.