Abigail Webb is senior manager of picture framing at Artistic Expressions, in Oviedo, Florida. She has extensive experience in preserving coin and stamp collections. This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Stamp and Coin Place (SCP): Thank you for agreeing to this interview! Can you tell us a little about your job?
Abigail Webb (AW): I specialize in conservation picture framing, and my official job title is senior manager of picture framing. “Picture framing” is the industry name, but really, I frame anything! I’ve created displays for coins, stamps, wine bottles, baseball bats, clothing, you name it! I’ve even framed historical items like a gun that Bonnie and Clyde used, as well as the Malcolm X family Bible.
SCP: Wow! What’s the most unusual item you’ve ever framed?
AW: I’ve done a lot of unusual things, but one that springs to mind is a large plastic mold of the Venus de Milo in bright yellow, orange, and red.
SCP: That’s definitely out of the ordinary. Now, you said that you are a conservation specialist; what are some of your main concerns when you are trying to preserve a collection?
AW: The first priority is acidity levels. Some materials out-gas harmful fumes onto your items, as you mentioned in your post on coin storage. Light is also a concern, which is why we often use UV glass to protect sensitive items from fading or degrading from the sun’s UV rays. Finally, air can be a problem. Most framing isn’t airtight because it doesn’t need to be, but we can do it. The most common items that need this treatment are clothing like christening or bridal gowns, and flowers, often old bridal bouquets. In some instances, our clients simply want a museum-quality display. We seal the glass to the backing with metal tape, with a slight gap at the top, then pump helium into the piece through the bottom. As the helium rises, it drives the air out; when all the air is gone, we finish sealing the display.
SCP: What are your main concerns when you’re framing a coin collection?
AW: One of the big issues is being able to see both sides of a coin. It’s so sad when you frame a coin and you don’t see it from the back. There are ways to create a holder to show both sides of the coin, by creating an opening around the coin, or creating a special double-sided display. Some collectors value display over conservation and ask for their coins to be secured in a mat with silicone. It’s not great from a conservation standpoint, but we always give our clients what they ask for, and if they value display over preservation, we will make them a beautiful display that meets their needs. I frame a lot of Walking Liberties, as well as service coins from the military. My priority is giving the client something that is beautiful and will suit their needs to keep it collectible.
SCP: What has been your favorite coin display to date?
AW: I got to create a frame for a flown flag from Afghanistan that a service-member had brought back from his tours of duty, along with a double-sided unit coin, and the certificate that came with the flag. It was a little difficult to decide how to arrange the display, since there was the shadowbox element of a flag that was about 2.5 inches deep, but also wanting to see both the back and front of the coin, and the certificate. These were mementos from his last tour, and he was giving it to his mom.
SCP: When you talk about designing a display, how much of that is your design skills, and how much of it is the client telling you how they want their display to look?
AW: That depends on the client. Some of them have really defined ideas, some want my design expertise. I would say that most of the time, it’s about 25% ideas from the client, and 75% my design knowledge. Coin and stamp collectors know their items, but they don’t usually know design or layout. I talk to the client to find out which pieces are most important to them, so I can feature those items more prominently. The collector’s knowledge of their items is a big factor in my designs: if the layout is visually stunning but doesn’t make sense to the collector, it’s no good. I can also help them determine which display options are going to be best for the conservation of their collection; for instance, which acid-free mats and foam boards will work best, whether or not to use UV glazing, etc.
SCP: Can you walk us through your process from when you first meet with a client to the finished product?
AW: It all starts with the conversation with the client. Then I take the collection, and use what they’ve said along with my knowledge of visual design, and I lay the pieces out in the setting. I discuss the components with the client, then help them select the mat or mats that they want to use. With something small, like coins, I often like to use an opening which is carefully fitted for conservation, to highlight the coin in combination with a mat lift for added detail. Once we’ve agreed on the inside of the package, it’s time to pick the right frame for the job. This is a complex decision, with a lot of questions for the client. Do they want to see their items from the back, do they need extra space or a sidewall? My job is to help them pick a frame that matches the inside arrangement without overwhelming it. Sometimes, the client may want to use a fillet, which is like a small frame, inside the mat to feature a coin or other small item; in that case, we’ll usually match the large frame to the small one. Once the client is happy with the entire design, I submit all the orders to customize the mats and frames.
The real magic happens when I start using the computerized mat cutter. This is a fantastic technology that allows me to make precision cuts to within 1/32nd of an inch. I can fit a coin into a mat so precisely that I could slam the mat against a table and not have the coin fall out. (Of course, I would never do that with any client’s coins!) This is especially helpful for coins with an unusual shape. I can make sure that every coin, no matter the shape or size, is mounted perfectly. My mission is to ensure that every client’s collection is returned to them in the same or better condition than I received it. We like to say that our clients are set for at least the next 100 years. This is the value of framing with conservation methods.
SCP: That’s incredible! It’s good to know that so many coins and other items are being preserved for future generations to enjoy.
AW: That’s the goal! We want people to be able to enjoy their collections, instead of having them stored away somewhere. That’s our service: getting these things that are special to families, and helping them put the collections on display.
SCP: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!