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Avoid these Antiques and Militaria "Preservation Boo-Boos"

Tips for preserving your historic collections with doing the least damage

I have the good fortune to handle a lot of militaria through the course of a week. Some of it is from very old collections, so I am able to see the effects of what some people may have considered to be preservation techniques. The truth of the matter is, many of the decisions collectors have made (including myself!), actually speed up the decay of our cherished relics.

I keep a folder on my computer desktop that is labeled “Preservation Boo-Boos.” Occasionally, I revisit the folder to remind myself of some preservation efforts gone too far. It occurred to me, my readers might benefit from seeing some of these "bad preservation practices."

First up, is an example from a 500-piece medal collection I inventoried. Each medal had at least one little sticker with very specific data recorded on it. This is how the collector could readily see the significance of each item in his collection. He passed away before he had a chance to see what the long-term effects of adhesive stickers on silver medal. Here is what happens over the matter of a few years:

Medal planchet showing discoloration from price tags being applied to reverse.

This is what happens when you put price tags on a medal. 

From the same collection, this medal is one of many that I found in individual, flat plastic cases. The collector laid his better medals on pieces of foam material and closed the lids. Years of being pressed up tightly against the foam made a transference of the material to the medal planchet—a permanent one.

Medal with growth on reverse from having been stored on foam in a plastic box.

This nasty growth on medals occurs when you store them in plastic boxes with foam padding.

Yes, a stiff brush got the material off the brass medal, but it left behind a moonscape of pock-marks.

Adhesives seem to be a recurring implement of preservation chaos. Take, for example, the early impulse to repair every tear or broken hinge in a book. A lot of tape has been applied to relics over the years, and there really isn’t a good substitute (though many curators will recommend Kodak’s Filmoplast P-90... something I have used for years as it is supposed to be easily “reversed”).

Tape residue left on a WWI document.

Tape is NEVER a good idea when it comes to conservation. Most will harden and leave behind a residue. 

In the early days of collector preservation, masking tape seemed to be the marvel-remedy. This section of WWI sheet music shows what happens to masking tape—it dries up, falls off and leaves a nasty, permanent residue.

Photo of  Fleet Reserve Long Service Medal showing a "layer of errors" including duct tape to hold the ribbon down, an identification on that with scotch tape over it to hold it secure.

Here's one that combines a "layer of errors" including duct tape to hold the ribbon down, an identification on that with scotch tape over it to hold it secure. Finally, a row of glue across the top to display the medal.  Good rule of thumb: If it is adhesive, don't use it!

Scotch tape will do the same thing. Best recommendation about tape? Don’t use any!

I really didn't believe a collector thought it was a good idea to GLUE his Japanese Naval insignia to the foamed back board. In all artifact-handling lessons taught, the cardinal rule is, "Don't do anything to the relic that can't be un-done." Guess this collector never got that memo!

Residue on the reverse of a cap badge left from being glued to a display board.

I shouldn't have to write this, but, "DON'T GLUE YOUR ARTIFACTS FOR DISPLAY."

Pricing items for sale seems to suspend a lot of collectors’ good preservation judgment. The most common misapplied form of pricing has to be the hanging tag on uniforms. Many seem to think they need to be attached to withstand hurricane winds. Invariably, they will loop them over and around a button. Now think “garrote.” A price tag is simply a small slicing tool that will eventually cut through any threads holding a button to a garment, especially if you go digging in with fingernails attempting to remove it. A simple solution that still allows you to safely use pricing tags? Simply loop it over a shoulder strap, through a buttonhole or use a brass safety pin to attach it the garment.

Magic marker price written on WWI artillery projectile.

Seriously? A magic marker to price your objects?  BUY SOME TAGS.  Don't write on your relics. 

Must it be said, “Don’t write on the artifacts”? Apparently so. I purchased this WWI projectile that had magic marker pricing on the brass surface. Sure, it can be cleaned off, but that introduces solvents and elbow grease, resulting in a brighter spot on the brass projectile. Don’t write on the artifacts!

I have written many times about the evils of “magic preservation potions” like those sold as “leather preservatives.” Simple explanation: They are not. They are sold to replace the natural depletion of fluids in leather, something that can’t be reversed. The result is they coat the leather with an oily film, draw out the salts used to tan the leather, thereby speeding up the eventual decay of the leather! But, they do make the leather look wet, and somehow, many believe that is somehow “preserving” the leather by some miracle reaction taking place. It isn’t. It is just speeding it up while putting a pretty face on the objects. Oiled today and allowed to sit in a normal climatic setting for a couple of years, the leather will again be “dry” and have a white bloom all over its surface—the tanning salts leached from the leather.

I suspect the same folks who subscribe to the “wet look” in leather are also the culprits when it comes to helmets. This helmet is in my collection and is one of my favorites... worn by a member of the 301st Heavy Tank Bn (formed from the 65th Engineer Bn.).

WWI helmet that was varnished and stored in red wool. Now it is covered with red fuzz.

One of my favorite helmets--and it has suffered from someone varnishing it and then storing it in red wool.  Now, this historic "tin lid" has a furry red exterior. 

Unfortunately, the collector who had it before me, just couldn't resist coating it with a "preservative.” Apparently, he wrapped it in a red flannel blanket to “protect it!” Well, this very historic Tank Corps helmet now has a healthy red fuzz all over it.

Here is an example of one of the worst "preserved" helmets I have handled. First the exterior with its glossy shine:

WWI helmet with exterior unit markings obscured by a varnish overcoat.

It looks shiny...but the collector who thought he was preserving this unit-marked M1917 helmet actually ruined it. It is hard to even see the unit marking through the heavy coating of shellac.

Then a view of the underside when it becomes obvious a good-intentioned "preservationist" has had their hands on the item:

Underside of M1917 helmet showing the extent of damage from shellac.

Flipping the helmet over, it is striking see just how much the "protective coating" has darkened this helmet. 


It would be horribly dishonest to sit here on a pedestal pointing out these preservation atrocities without admitting to my own. Though I have committed many through the years (I used to have cans of Pecard, and WD-40 in my collecting toolbox), let me describe one of my worst "red-ear" attempts at preservation.

I have been a life-long collector of historic photography and even a past president of the Daguerreian Society, an international organization dedicated to the history, art, preservation and practice of early photography. That said....

"Forgive me Father, for I have sinned..."

Having purchased a large box of cased images many years ago, I was in a hurry to evaluate and categorize as "keepers" or "to sell". I had encountered a decent melainotype on a canvas backing rather than the usually encountered, tin-dipped iron plate. It depicted a Civil War Union soldier but the canvas had clearly adhered to the cover glass.

Being well-versed in photographic techniques (or so I thought), I poured a bowl full of distilled water and placed the melainotype in it to soak for a bit. Yes, the canvas popped free of the cover glass... and so did the rest of the emulsion. The entire image disappeared before my eyes into a mass of floating black flakes. That melainotype had survived 135 years--until I thought I was so smart I could "preserve" it.

Okay, I shared one of my worst errors. In the spirit of educating other collectors, share one of yours (names can be changed to protect your reputation!). Send me your preservation boo-boos to:

 I will share them in the pages of Military Trader in the hope that we will inform other collectors of potential hazards. Remember, we collect to preserve. In so doing, we honor those who served.

John A-G
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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