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The condition, care and storage of counters

The condition of counters for a collector is of prime importance: it is quite natural for us to want the best examples that we can find. One obvious need is to check that counters are not damaged or chipped and to keep the collection in such a way as to avoid the possibility of damage or wear.

Mother of pearl is obviously a natural medium and our counters were produced from large imported shells. They were ground flat, trimmed to shape and polished several hundred years ago - all by hand, of course. As a result of this natural flaws which were present at production are relatively common. To what extent they are acceptable in a collection is a matter of personal preference.

Some counters contain "inclusions" which are natural chalk-like imperfections within the mother-of-pearl. To check for these, you need to hold the counter up against a very bright light source when they stand out at once as darker patches. They may not affect the overall appearance of the counter in normal lighting, but where counters are to be displayed they may be evident and distracting.

Many counters are not entirely flat: they may have "striations" to the surface which show up with a sort of rainbow effect; or they may have deeper ridges or channels which still have normal decoration on them but which may detract from the appearance of the counter. Quite often a collector has to accept these natural, minor defects. It still surprises me, however, to find counters which have taken many hours of the most intricate decoration and polishing, even piercing or fretting, but which had all along a significant defect. Why did they still decorate them, even though these defects were evident? The answer could be that top quality mother-of-pearl was in short supply at the time. Some people actually find that these defects enhance the finished product. It is all a matter of personal taste.

Many counters need to be cleaned as their surface holds dirt in the decoration from repeated handling. My advice is to treat counters in the gentlest way possible; certainly no abrasive or radical cleaners containing ammonia or bleach for instance. Washing counters in a very mild solution of washing up liquid - as little as one drop in a small bowl of warm water - is usually sufficient. Gentle rubbing with a soft toothbrush usually removes most dirt, but the counters should be left in the solution for as short a time as possible. They should then be rinsed thoroughly in warm water to remove all traces of detergent. Gentle rubbing with a soft cloth usually leaves the counter looking pristine. But cleaning is likely to reduce the contrast in the decoration and you run the risk of being disappointed by the end product. A certain amount of dirt may actually enhance the look of a counter.

One area of concern for all collectors of mother-of-pearl counters is how or why counters go "blind". This is a term used when the superb glossy silver finish turns dull and white and powdery so that the counter looks almost like ivory. It is not clear why this happens: it may be from contact with certain chemicals, perhaps from excessive exposure to sunlight or some types of artificial light. Leaving counters in direct sunlight for long periods seems unwise.

It is easy for us to overlook that counters were produced not for us to admire but for people to play with. Repeated handling causes wear. Excessive wear will affect the beauty of a counter. Given a choice, most of us would prefer a crisply decorated counter with no wear. But it is an interesting thought that worn counters have given a great deal of pleasure to their owners.

Counters can be difficult to display and many collections are housed in the loose-leaf folders with plastic pockets which are favoured by coin collectors. The ideal, if one can afford the space, would be a collector\'s cabinet with shallow drawers lined with dark material (for me, counters always look best against a background of black velvet). This will obviously depend on the size and type of collection.

Counters are also difficult to photograph; lighting, focusing and the avoidance of reflections prove difficult for all but advanced photographers. Counters are, however, extremely easy to scan and it is simplicity itself to achieve excellent detail. Instructions will vary according to the scanners/copiers, but for me "colour document" mode works best with a resolution of approximately 300 dpi.

Finally, as a collection develops, it may be useful to itemise each counter on a computer using either a database or a spreadsheet. Either of these will be a very useful tool. I have found the following set of headings useful in classifying my own collection:

  1. Reference Number
  2. Shape (round, square, oblong etc.)
  3. Style (fretted, standard, large etc.)
  4. Border type (vine and moth, Queen Charlotte type etc.)
  5. Approximate date
  6. Monogram/initials
  7. Crest
  8. Motto
  9. Coat of arms (brief description)
  10. Attribution, where known
  11. Reference (to Fairbairn, Burke etc. - see reference list)

In this way, it is simplicity itself to locate a counter with a particular set of initials, crest or border pattern etc..

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