The purpose of this guide is to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions when buying graded sports cards online.
Grading companies serve a valid and needed function in the sports card market. Since the inception of sports card grading in the early 1990's, the industry has, unfortunatley seen the introduction of many misleading companies. It is easier to list the companies that can be trusted than it is to go through the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of companies that blatantly apply false grades to cards in an effort to earn additional profits from inferior merchandise. It should be said, however, prior to compiling such a list, that there are two different types of grading companies.
1. 3rd party submission companies - These companies accept submissions from collectors and dealers who wish to receive an independent 3rd party assessment of their cards for a fee. In return for the fee, the grading company returns the card in a sealed tamper evident slab with a clearly identifiable grade and a serial number.
2. Inventory graders - These companies buy up large quantities of sports cards and seal them in slabs with grades and serial numbers applied just like third party graders, however these companies own the merchandise that they grade. Inventory graders are prone to applying high grades to cards in order to realize increased profits. One should be aware of any grading company that gives only high grades.
As a general rule, 3rd party submission companies are on the level. Some companies have greater name recognition and reputation than others. I have analyzed thousands of cards from an assortment of grading companies and even though I have found some of the smaller companies to grade fairly, consistency often appears to be an issue. As a result, market value of cards in lesser recognized slabs, realize lower prices and thereby carry lower value. A popular option for collectors is to submit graded cards from lesser recognized companies to larger grading companies to be regraded - this is known as crossing over. While this process can solidify the value of your collection, you may find things about your collection that you didn't want to know. Many collectors and dealers have crossed beautiful looking cards from marginal grading companies like PRO and FGS to well known grading companies like PSA only to find that the card had been altered (i.e. trimming, color modification, etc.). That is not to say that the initial grading company intentionally made the error in grading the card - but the fact remains that they made the error. The better known companies - PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator), BGS (Beckett Grading Serves, GAI (Global Authentication, Inc.) and SGC (Sportscard Guarantee Corporation) -in no particular order- have made errors in their tenure as grading companies, however due to higher levels of customer satisfaction they have created brands that, to varying degrees, are seen as commodities in the market.
It should be noted that grading companies do not improve the grade of cards, they simply verify the grade. However, a common mis-conception is that grading companies do not increase the value of sports cards when in fact the opposite is proven daily in the market. The reason is simple, collectors feel more comfortable buying graded merchandise because it has been analyzed by a third party that has not vested interest in the final realized price. (This is particularly true of online trade)
The Big Four
Based on my extensive analysis of grading companies, there are 4 that I can truly endorse.
1. BGS (Beckett Grading Services) and BVG (Beckett Vintage Grading Service)
Beckett Grading Services and Beckett Vintage Grading Services, regardless of what anyone may tell you, are one in the same. A few years ago Beckett Grading Services determined that they would distinguish vintage cards from modern cards by placing them in different slabs. This decision will seem ridiculous in 20 years when modern cards become vintage, however the grading standards are applied evenly to both commodities.
Based on my analysis of grading accuracy, Beckett Grading Services is consistently the best. Beckett applies very stringent rules when judging centering, corners, edges and surface. Beckett is the only marquis brand grader that provides a score card with every slabbed card.
The 4 subgrades on the score card are Centering, Corners, Edges and Surface. While the equation for figuring out the final grade is a bit of a mystery to most people in the hobby, one thing is clear. The whole is not the sum of the parts divided by 4. Low grades in any subcategory will greatly effect the overall grade. For instance in the example above the 1974 Topps Johnny Bench card received a Centering grade of 9, Edges 8, Corners 7 and Surface 7.5 and yet the overall grade was only 7.5 (Near Mint Plus) because of the corners.
Beckett Grading Services is a consumers best bet when it comes to graded merchandise!
2. SGC (Sportscard Guarantee Corporation)
SGC is a fantastic grading company and quickly on the rise as a trusted grader of cards. SGC uses very similar guidelines as Beckett in terms of determining a cards grade, however they tend to be a shade more liberal when it comes to judging a cards centering. SGC is extremely consistent.
It is interesting to note that SGC does not use mid grades with cards graded below Excellent and there is no mid-grade between 6 and 7 (or in dual equivalent terms 80 and 84).
SGC is a highly trusted name in the market and a great bet for sports card consumers.
3. PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator)
PSA is the leader in the graded sports card industry. They have encapsulated and graded more cards than any other grading company and have done more to establish the value of graded cards-- with their Sports Market Report (SMR)-- than any other grading company.
PSA, overall is an extremely accurate and trusted name in the business, however their service does not demonstrate the overall consistency of BGS/BVG or SGC. That being said, PSA is still the most trusted name in the industry because of the sheer volume of grading that they have done. PSA does not deal in mid-grades but rather paints with a broader brush.
With regard to higher grades (above Near Mint), PSA generally commands higher realized value than any other grading company.
PSA is a strong bet for consumers and while only the 3rd best for accuracy in my opinion, still the best investment based on current market value.
4. GAI (Global Authentication, Inc.)
GAI uses very similar standards to PSA and by and large demonstrates the same consistency. GAI is an up and coming grading company and is very accurate and reliable. GAI's grading definitions are the same as BGS/BVG but without the subgrade score card.
GAI graded cards are a strong investment and the quality and accuracy of their product seems to be improving at the most rapid rate in the industry.
Obtaining Graded Cards
There are two ways to obtain graded cards:
- Submit ungraded cards to grading companies for a fee and take the chance of receiving a low grade.
- Buy cards already graded without a fee and no risk of receiving an undesirable grade.
Obviously, the option with the least risk is the second. In addition submitting cards with lower book values (such as commons or lesser stars) to grading companies can be highly cost prohibitive.
This is no way is a complete guide for grading companies and graded sports cards, but hopefully some light has been shed on which brands to trust when it comes to buying graded cards online. Thanks for taking the time to check out my guide and happy hunting.