Newcomers or returnees to the sports card hobby can be overwhelmed by how much the hobby has changed in the last 10-20 years. Of particular note is the advent of card grading. I came back to the hobby in 2004 after a 10-year absence, and was bewildered to find cards being sold in sealed plastic slabs with numerical grades attached to them.
It makes sense, of course. In the era of eBay and online shopping, 3rd-party grading companies are an excellent way for card vendors to assure their customers that they are getting what they pay for. After all, you can only tell so much about the quality of a raw card from a low-resolution scan in an auction. Scans can hide creases, wax stains, and all sorts of flaws that you would otherwise miss without the ability to examine the card in person.
"Great!" you say, "All I have to do is buy cards graded 9 or 10 and I know I'm getting a quality card, right?"
The sad reality is that not all grading companies are created equal. In fact some "grading" companies don't grade cards at all! The world of graded cards is beset with pitfalls, including:
- Cards that have been trimmed, recoloured, bleached, or otherwise altered to improve their appearance
- Cards that are "sheet cut" (i.e. cut from a factory sheet by a third party)
- Counterfeit cards (AKA "reprints") being passed off as the real thing
So how do you avoid paying top dollar for a card that may in reality be worthless? KNOW YOUR GRADING COMPANIES! Every grading company makes mistakes. You cannot completely eliminate the risk of buying one of the problem cards described above, but you can minimize your risk. Scanning through the listings on eBay, you will find cards graded by dozens of different companies, but only a handful of them are truly reputable, offering honest, accurate grading.The most popular of these companies are known as the "Big 3" or the "Big 4", depending on who you talk to:
- Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) - The oldest and most popular of the mainstream companies, PSA grades cards on a scale of 1-10 with no half points. Long established as the leader in third-party grading, PSA's advantages are many, including their Set Registry, which allows you to register and build your PSA-graded sets online, competing with others. PSA's popularity extends across both vintage and modern cards. While there has been some question about PSA's consistency, this is to be somewhat expected with a company that grades such a huge volume of cards. Incidentally, the message boards run by Collectors Universe, PSA's parent company, are an excellent source of information on all aspects of the card collecting hobby.
- Sportscard Guaranty Corporation (SGC) - Although poorly marketed, with a set registry that is difficult to navigate, SGC nevertheless offers a quality product. The grading slabs themselves are unique, using a custom-fitted black insert that both immobilizes the card in the slab (compare to PSA-graded cards which rattle around in the slab), and nicely offsets the white borders found on most sportscards. SGC uses a grading scale that ranges from 10 (poor) to 100 (Pristine), but uses weird numbers such as 84 and 92 that confused some collectors to the point where they now offer an "equivalent" grade based on the more common 1-10 scale, including half-points (e.g. SGC 86 is equivalent to 7.5 on the 1-10 scale). SGC's popularity is greater with vintage collectors than modern, and they are widely recognized as the leader in authentication and grading of 19th century cards. SGC also offers an online set registry, although the number of registered sets is a fraction of those registered with PSA.
- Beckett Grading Service (BGS)/Beckett Vintage Grading (BVG) - BGS is widely considered the top choice among modern card collectors. Buoyed by constant promotion through their media empire (magazines, books, web site, etc.), BGS early on earned a reputation for being the "toughest" of the grading companies. However, this reputation has slipped recently, as Pristine grades, once nearly unheard of, are now commonplace on eBay. BGS uses a grading scale from 1 (Poor) to 10 (Pristine), including half points, and also provides "subgrades" for the corners, edges, centering and surface so you know exactly what a card's strengths and weaknesses are. The main caution regarding BGS is that they will grade sheet-cut cards. Somewhat controversial in the hobby, some collectors won't touch sheet-cut cards, while others have no problem with them. Your own personal stance will help to determine whether you will consider BGS when shopping for graded cards. BVG is Beckett's vintage grading department, and the same caveat regarding sheet cuts applies. BVG recently stopped providing subgrades, which was the easiest way to pick out a sheet-cut card (typically, the Surface subgrade on a sheet-cut card will be lower than the other subgrades), so be careful if this is a concern for you. BVG has had a tough time gaining a foothold in the vintage grading world, which is not a surprise given the lack of coverage that vintage cards receive in their publications. One final note regarding Beckett: they also offer a third grading service known as BCCG (Beckett Collectors Club Grading), which offers a simplified 1-10 scale with no half grades and no subgrades. Extreme caution must be taken, as a BCCG 10 is labeled "Mint or Better" which is NOT the same as a Gem Mint or Pristine card from another grading service. Without going into any further detail, I invite you to do more research online before attempting to purchase a BCCG graded card.
- Global Authentication (GAI) - Started by two former PSA employees, GAI is the relative new kid on the grading block, and as such they have a smaller market share than the other companies. My personal experience with GAI is limited, but positive, and general consensus is that they do a reputable job of grading. However, GAI, like SGC, has more of a reputation with vintage cards and little market share among modern card grading.
A couple of companies also to be considered:
- Sports Collectors Digest Authentic (SCD) - now out of the grading business, SCD was generally considered to be a reputable and accurate service. On the open market, you will still find the odd SCD graded card, distinguishable by the red logo on the silver label. CAUTION: there is a new "SCD" (Sports Cards Direct) that uses a similar silver label but with blue logo. This new service is not considered to be a reputable grading company.
- KSA is a Canadian company that specializes in hockey cards. They use a 1-10 grading scale, with half grades only between 6 and 10. They seem to do a reasonable job of grading, but general consensus is that they are not as tough as other companies. As always, buyer beware, but there could be deals to be had if the price is right.
Companies NOT to be considered:
- GEM, GEM Elite, MINT, RARE, PRO, USA, CSA, AGS, PGS, GradeMyCards, FGS, GMA, IGS, NASA, WCG, 3-D, Grading Unlimited, CGE, GRA, ASA, SPA, TFA, PGI, etc.
- Quite literally, some of these companies don't exist for more than a year, develop a reputation, rebrand themselves and start over. This list only hints at the number of illegitimate grading operations out there.
- Even worse, some of these "grading" companies area actually basement slabbing operations, with the "grader" selling his own slabs online.
- Ask yourself this: if you owned a Mickey Mantle rookie card that you absolutely knew was authentic and unaltered, why would you send it to a grading company that had anything less than a stellar reputation? Now ask yourself why that Mantle rookie on eBay is sitting in a slab from Bubba's Grading Service. The bottom line is that a card graded Poor by a reputable company is still more desirable than a trimmed card or a fake, no matter what numerical grade is on the label.