The Basics of Sports-Card Collecting: Understanding Card Grading

This 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card was graded by Professional Sports Authenticators as a PSA 8, Near Mint/Mint.

As with most collectibles, the value of a trading card often comes down to three criteria: condition, condition and condition. This is true whether you are talking about a vintage 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card or a 2012 Playoff Contenders Andrew Luck rookie card.

But how does one determine condition? Of course, there are standard qualifiers and terminology used in the hobby that all trading-card collectors are accustomed to using when evaluating the condition of the card. Problems occur when sellers and buyers differ over specific condition issues and how they affect the overall aesthetic appeal of the card and, therefore, it’s value.

Enter the need for card grading. Card grading is the practice of having trading cards examined by a third-party service for the purpose of assigning the cards a permanent and undisputable numerical and condition grade. Once the grade is determined, the card is “slabbed,” which is the process of mounting the card in a tamper-proof acrylic holder that preserves the condition of the card and displays the assigned grade.

The origin of the grading of trading cards can be traced back to the early 1990s. The need for such a service was commiserate with the growing demand. Values of vintage trading cards led to a need for a—theoretically—unbiased opinion to determine value and ease disagreements about condition between buyers and sellers.

In addition, as the values of trading cards increased, unethical and even illegal practices of card doctoring and forgery began to occur. Card-grading companies not only determine a card’s condition but also its authenticity. With high-grade Mickey Mantle rookie cards selling for six figures in today’s market, and some rare tobacco cards stretching the price ceiling to seven figures, it’s easy to understand the need for such third-party policing.

How Cards Are Graded
All trading cards are graded based on four criteria: surface, edges, corners and centering. Each grading criterion is examined and assigned a numerical grade. The four numerical grades are summed and then divided by four to provide the final grade.

Certain criteria carry different weights to the overall grade and each individual company makes those determinations as well as deciding when to round down and when to round up. This is a simple way of understanding how cards are graded and how their final grade is determined.

Compare this Mickey Mantle card with the above photo. This is a PSA 1, Poor. The creases and corner damage are very visible to the naked eye.

Which Cards Are Graded
The answer to this specific question can be as varied as the interests of every single collector. It really comes down to personal preference. However, one of the goals of card grading is to increase a card’s value. Others include proving authenticity, preserving and protection, but for the most part, collectors choose to have cards graded in an attempt to increase their value.

With that said, certain types of cards make more sense to grade than others because having a card graded does not instantly make the card more valuable. The result of the grading is what matters in that it contributes to perceived scarcity. Here are the most common categories of cards collectors submit for grading.

Pre-war, tobacco-era cards: Often done simply to prove authenticity;
Vintage star cards: Graded cards of star players almost always sell for a higher value than ungraded cards, even if they are the same condition;
Rookie cards: Regardless of sport or era, a player’s rookie card will always be his or her most valuable, therefore the higher the grade, the greater the value.

In today’s trading card market, there are currently four identified grading companies that collectors recognize as reputable and trustworthy: Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Beckett Grading Services (BSG), Sports Card Guaranty (SGC) and International Sports Authentication (ISA).

Through the years, the hobby has seen many different grading companies come and go as sports-card aficionados with entrepreneurial aspirations looked to take advantage of the growing trend. Even today, cards are sold on the secondary market bearing grading certifications from some of these now-defunct companies.

Each company uses a relatively similar condition scale, with each adding its own unique characteristics to differentiate its scale from that of their competitors. The most significant difference among companies is that of SGC, which uses a numerical point scale from 1 to 100, while the other companies use a 1-to-10 point scale. While each company also has its own specific condition criteria, there are significant commonalities between the various companies. Condition criteria can generally be defined as follows:

Poor: Heavily rounded corners, noticeable creases, edge wear, chipping, staining, paper loss and centering 100/0 top-to-bottom and/or left-to-right;
Fair/Good: Noticeable corner rounding and layering, notches and/or edge wear, chipping, noticeable wear resulting in significant loss of gloss or tears and centering 90/10;
Very Good: Slightly rounded or layered corners, light chipping and edge wear, very minor creases, some remaining surface gloss, 85/15 centering;
Very Good/Excellent: Slight corner layering, notches or dings, hairline creases, visible gloss, 80/20 centering;
Excellent:Minor imperfections in the four criteria of surface, corners, edges and centering; minimum centering of 75/25; fuzzy corners; light chipping;
Excellent/Mint: Fuzzy corners but free of dings or fraying, only minor chipping, solid gloss with minor scratches, 70/30 centering;
Near Mint: Very minor wear on 2 or 3 corners, edge wear and surface scratches upon magnification, 65/35 centering;
Near Mint/Mint: Sharp corners to the naked eye, very minor chipping of edges, gloss with minor scratches upon magnification, 60/40 centering;
Mint: Near perfect to the naked eye, imperfections visible under magnification only, 55/45 centering;
Gem Mint/Pristine: A perfect card even under magnification with perfect 50/50 centering.

Each company provides its own detailed condition description on its website. Here is a look at the scales employed by the four most widely used companies in the market today: 

Behold the Holy Grail of sports collecting: The “pristine” or “gem mint” card, according to Beckett Grading Service. This Michael Jordan’s rookie card is exactly as it came off the printer.

Beckett Grading Services
Poor (1), Good (2), Very Good (3), Very Good/Excellent (4), Excellent (5), Excellent Mint (6), Near Mint (7), Near Mint/Mint (8), Mint (9), Gem Mint (9.5), Pristine (10).
• BGS also assigns half-point grades when a card exhibits condition criteria above or below a specific grade.

Professional Sports Authenticator
Poor/Fair (1), Good (2), Very Good (3), Very Good/Excellent (4), Excellent (5), Excellent Mint (6), Near Mint (7), Near Mint/Mint (8), Mint (9), Gem Mint (10).
• PSA also provides qualifying grades when all but one item of criteria are met for a higher grade.

International Sports Authentication
Poor (1), Good (2), Very Good (3), Very Good/Excellent (4), Excellent (5), Excellent Mint (6), Near Mint (7), Near Mint/Mint (8), Mint (9), Gem Mint (10).
• ISA awards half-point grades between ISA 1 and ISA 8.

Sports Card Guaranty
Poor (10), Fair (20), Good (30), Good+ (35), Very Good (40), Very Good+ (45), Very Good/Excellent (50), Very Good/Excellent+ (55), Excellent (60), Excellent+ (70), Excellent/Near Mint (80), Excellent/Near Mint+ (82), Near Mint (84), Near Mint + (86), Near Mint/Mint (88), Near Mint/Mint+ (92), Mint (96), Gem (98), Pristine (100).

How Much Does Card Grading Cost?
Card grading is a service, and as such there are costs associated with the practice. While the specific costs vary by company, every company uses similar criteria in calculating that price. These criteria include: era of the card, turnaround time, assigned insurance value and postage costs.

In general the aggregate average price to have a card submitted for grading ranges from $7 to $10, which includes the actual grading process, encapsulation and registration of the card in the company’s database and insured, return postage.

Is card grading right for you and the cards in your collection? That is something you will have to decide. However, if you do decide to move forward, start with a small submission as there is plenty to learn in the world of card grading, even for the most experienced of collectors.

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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