And You Thought You Were Done with Grades
One of the most intriguing developments in the sports card boom of the 1990s was the introduction of card grading services. The foremost card grader in the world of sports is Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA). PSA was founded in 1991 and is now regarded as the giant in the card-grading industry.
Understanding What Card Grading Is
PSA-graded cards command the highest prices in the trade because the cards' conditions are accepted by buyers as having been vetted by a group of independent experts, whose business is the meticulous inspections of cards. In a nutshell, the PSA card submission process works like this: You mail your card (or cards) directly to PSA. The experienced PSA staff closely examines your card and determines its precise condition. A grade is then issued, anywhere from 1/Poor to Fair up to 10/Gem-Mint. Each grade conferred on a card corresponds to a very specific criterion established by PSA, which takes into account the card's corners, centering, surface and edge wear, creases, loss of original gloss, and other factors. PSA will grade just about every card submitted to its service, unless the card exhibits evidence of having been tampered with (trimming, recoloring, restoration) or is of dubious authenticity.
You may think your card is in mint condition, and describe it as such. But, upon closer inspection, you notice a very slight fraying at a corner or two. This might render the card a 7/Near Mint on the PSA grading scale. And the difference in what collectors of PSA cards will pay for a 9/Mint versus a 7/Near Mint is dramatic. It's not unusual to see anywhere from a fourfold to as much as a tenfold price difference.
PSA-graded card, Cal Ripken Jr.
A 1973 Topps Nolan Ryan with a PSA 7/Near Mint grade is selling for $60; the same card with a PSA 9/Mint grade is pulling in $415. A 1975 Topps George Brett rookie card with a PSA 7/Near Mint grade is seeing $95 in the marketplace; a PSA 9/Mint, $450. To the casual card collector, the differences in the card's appearance and appeal might be insignificant, but in current climate of today's marketplace, it is very significant.
A PSA-graded card is placed in an attractive-looking, protective, clear plastic case. The card's year and manufacturer (1959 Topps, 1991 Upper Deck, and so on), a PSA serial number, and—most important—its grade are printed on a paper insert and placed atop the card in the casing. PSA grades cards from all sports: baseball, basketball, football, hockey, boxing, and even golf. They also grade Minor League cards. There are a growing number of dealers in sports cards who will only buy PSA-graded items.
Visit PSA at www.psacard.com or contact them at 800-325-1121. You'll receive all the details on how to go about getting your cards graded. Many collectors choose to become members of PSA and receive the Sportscard Market Report, a monthly publication that lists the latest marketplace prices of PSA-graded cards, from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century tobacco cards to the most popular of present-day issues. There are also feature articles in this thorough publication, which are of special relevance to PSA card buyers and sellers. In the Sportscard Market Report, you also get access to the names of PSA-authorized dealers of PSA-graded cards, as well as other buyers and sellers who specialize in these highly sought-after cards.
PSA-graded cards are also perfect for display, because they are in protective cases that are pleasing to the eye. You can now have your most precious cards out in the open for all to see, instead of tucked away in binders, boxes, and drawers.
It's important to note that PSA is not alone in the card-grading arena. Our old friend Beckett also offers grading services. The Beckett Grading Service operates on a similar 1 to 10 scale, just like PSA. What differentiates them from PSA is that they use half points (7.5, 8.5, and so on) and issue Report Card style grades, leaving no confusion in why a card gets the final grade that it does. Beckett grades each card in four categories—centering, corners, edges, and surface—and then assigns an overall composite grade. A Beckett-graded card is then placed in a secure plastic case—similar to PSA's—with all the pertinent details on how the grade was determined inserted inside. The final grade appears on the front; the category grades on the back. Still another card grading service—and increasingly popular in the sports card market—is Sportscard Guaranty, known as SGC. SGC uses a 1 to 100 grading scale (just like high school). SGC grades Pokémon cards, too, and can be found at www.sgccard.com. Both Beckett and SGC card grading services are more cost-conscious than is PSA, and their turnaround time is routinely much faster.
Deciding Whether to Have Your Cards Graded
Card grading, as you probably suspected, isn't free. In fact, as more and more card collectors utilize this service, the cost for grading has gone up, and the turnaround time on the grading process (the amount of time it'll take before you get your card back) has gotten longer and longer.
Nevertheless, if you have vintage cards on the high end of the condition scale, grading them will greatly enhance their values in today's marketplace. Buyers will know exactly what they are getting when you say you have a 1953 Topps Ralph Kiner, PSA 7/Near Mint. If you described the same card, without a professional grading, as being in near mint condition, it would not attract many buyers willing to pay anywhere near the book price. Buyers are often leery of accepting at face value a seller's description of his or her card.
Generally speaking, except for vintage cards, grading is reserved for star players or rare issues. Often, if your cards are on the bottom of the condition charts, it's not worth making the $15 to $20 per card investment, or sometimes more, necessary to get them graded.
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Assessing Your Card's Condition Yourself
Your sports card's condition will determine its value—in both dollars and in attractiveness. This is the reason why card grading has blossomed into a business in its own right. If you'd rather not fork over the money to have your cards professionally graded, you can try to pinpoint for yourself their exact conditions. In the following sections, I cover several areas that greatly impact a card's grade and, hence, its value.
A card's grade rests largely on the condition of its corners. For if the card's corners are razor sharp, it's more than likely that the rest of the card will be in similar, unsullied shape. A mint card does not exhibit any signs of fraying at its corners. A near mint card may show miniscule fraying on some of its corners, but not any graduated fraying. Graduated fraying is considered a more advanced form of this particular card malady, when the fraying becomes multi-layered. Ultimately, extensive corner wear leads to rounding at the edges. When this occurs, the card's grade drops considerably.
Ding is a word used to describe damage on the corner of a card, when the evolution of corner wear is substantial.
A bend or fold in the card is a crease. Extensive handling of a card will sometimes result in a crease (or two or three). And all creases are not created equal. Some are quite visible; some are only visible in reflected light. Some are long; some are short. It's better to have a card without any creases. No card can be considered mint or near mint if it is in any way creased.
A card's centering is central to its value. Well-versed collectors measure the distance between the card's photo and its four borders. And if a card measures 50/50 top to bottom and 65/35 left to right, it is considered perfectly centered on its top and bottom borders, and shifted to the left with 65 percent of the border to the left of the photo and 35 percent to the right. This may sound confusing, even bizarre, but this centering lingo is used quite frequently in the card trade.
Perfectly centered cards are the most sought after cards by collectors. Cards that have lost a border due to a production miscut, for instance, are the orphans of the card world. Nobody wants them.
Gloss refers to the shine on the surface of a card. As time passes, some cards lose their initial gloss. Older cards with their original gloss intact are prized.
Chipping is a word often seen in card descriptions and refers to a card's edges, as opposed to its corners. Edges sometimes start chipping in a piecemeal way, just as the descriptive word suggests. This phenomenon is more prevalent in some series than in others.
The term notching is applied to edge wear indentations on a card caused, for example, by rubber bands pressuring its sides. Additional factors that come into play when evaluating a card's condition are wax stains from the card's initial packaging, picture focus, printing defects, scuffing, scratching, and marks made by the human hand, such as ink, crayon, and pencil notations.