Monday, January 17, 2011

Condition & Grading

(I wrote this about 4 years ago, as part of a book on the hobby I never quite finished. I'm including it today because it still needs to be said. And because I'll always jump on the chance to recycle my own content into a post. You can call it lazy, but, hey, it's new to you, right? The cards shown aren't part of the planned book, just some illustrations.)

A card’s appearance affects its selling price. The better a card looks, the more it will be worth. Supply and demand establish a card’s basic selling price, but buyers generally want the best looking card for the money. If a card shows any damage at all, its appeal is lowered.  Buyers expect to pay less if it exhibits flaws. On the other hand, a card with more perfect features can fetch much more money than its book value. This is especially true with older cards.

Back when a lot of hobby business was conducted through the mail, there was a need to adequately describe whether a card exhibited any wear. As a result, collectors developed a set of grades. A card’s grade is a way of describing its overall condition. Assessing a card’s condition was easy when done in person, but long-distance transactions meant sellers were expected to be honest about the shape of any cards they were offering. Using grades helped buyers and sellers come to an agreement about how much a card was worth.

When card values began to rise in the 1980s, it became more important to give an accurate grade because a change in grade could mean a difference of a significant amount of money. Some sellers developed a reputation for grading cards poorly, while buyers were likely to be a lot more discriminating. A need arose in the hobby for an alternative method of grading, where a third party would evaluate a card’s condition and then encapsulate it to prevent further damage. After several failed attempts in the late 1980s to establish a viable third-party grading company, professionally-graded cards were a hobby reality by the early-mid 1990s.

Today, the difference in a final selling price between one grade and the next on high-value cards can be hundreds of dollars. For high-demand cards like the T206 Honus Wagner, 1933 Goudey Nap LaJoie or 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle the difference can be thousands of dollars. The advent of eBay and the internet have made it easier for sellers to show images of cards to prospective buyers; however, digital pictures may fail to show certain types of damage and can be altered with little effort to make the card look better. Because of such advanced technology, buyers still expect an accurate description along with an image.

(Not a mint card)

Standard Grading Guidelines

Even with the success of professional grading services, the vast majority of collections have not been graded. There are many reasons for this: some collectors don’t want to pay for a third-party service, aren’t really concerned about condition, won’t submit cards to grade unless they are truly high-grade or just don’t bother with graded material. In the hobby, cards that have not been graded are called “raw” and are assessed by the condition guide listed below.

There are several standard grades in the hobby:

Mint (MT) – A perfect card. The card has four perfectly sharp corners, full gloss, and no damage whatsoever. It must be well-centered, with equal borders. No creases, edge dents, surface scratches, paper flaws, yellowing or fading, regardless of age. An imperfectly printed card (out of register, miscut or showing print flaws) or card stained by contact with wax or gum cannot be considered mint, even if it has just been pulled from a pack. Cards from 1981 and later that are truly mint will fetch 25-50 percent above book value. Vintage cards in mint can sell for many times the listed value.

Near Mint (NMT) – At first glance, the card appears perfect; under closer examination, however, a minor flaw will be discovered. These minor defects can be from the factory, such as print lines, dots, or a photo that is slightly out of register. On well-centered cards, three of the four corners must be perfectly sharp. A slightly-off-center card would also fit this grade. Cards listed in price guides are generally priced as NMT.

(Also not a mint card)

Excellent (EX) – The corners are still fairly sharp, the gloss on the picture may show minor wear from rubbing against other cards, and the card contains no creases. Cards may be a little off-center. This grade refers to a very nice card with no visible damage that is just not quite perfect. Though the damage is minimal, a card in EX is only worth about 50 percent of book value.

Very Good (VG) – The card shows obvious handling. Corners show some rounding, the gloss on the picture shows some wear, and there may be some minor creases. Wax and gum stains may be visible. There is minor damage to the card from handling, though there are no major creases or other major types of damage. VG cards are worth about 30 percent of listed book value.

Good (G) – The card shows much wear such as rounding of corners, major or multiple creases. The card has some definite problems, though no intentional damage. Due to the low demand for G cards, they sell for about 10 percent of book value.

(This card isn't mint, either)

Fair (F) – The card shows excessive wear, such as large and multiple creases, excessive surface wear, small pin or staple holes, slight tearing, some tape damage, added pen or pencil marks, other damage. This card is of questionable value to collectors, although it is still basically intact. Cards in this shape are worth around 5 percent of book value.

Poor (P) – The card shows major damage. Parts may be torn away. There may be large holes, major pen or pencil writing, water damage, or other major problems. Major portions of the front or back might be missing. Not a very collectible card, except as a “set filler” until a better copy is found. Though most cards in this condition hold minimal value, some collectors will pick up high-dollar cards in this shape.

(Superstar? Yes...but still not a mint card)

Since this condition guide is dependent on the person judging the grade, it’s not always perfect. There is a great deal of “gray” area in the definitions. Sometimes a card can exhibit all the characteristics of one grade and show many of the qualities for the higher grade as well. Because of this, sellers will often use a combination of two grades. For instance, a card that could be considered better than VG but not quite EX will be listed as VG/EX, and a card that is better than EX but not quite NMT is called EX/MT.

These guidelines are not universal. Different sellers have their own standards: some grade conservatively, while others are frequently a grade or two above what the buyer thinks it should be. Collectors who buy cards over the Internet or through the mail should understand a seller’s return policy if they don’t agree with the grade. Most sellers are happy to accept returns in case a seller disagrees with the stated conditions, but a few will not. In dealing with businesses, it’s important to know that the power lies with buyers; when sellers don’t deliver good service, they don’t deserve repeat business.

(Definitely not a mint card)

The least you need to know about grading:

Off-centered cards and cards with printing flaws (such as a blurry picture) cannot be considered mint. A card with wax or gum stains from its original packaging cannot be considered higher than VG. A card with any creases cannot be considered higher than VG. Any tape residue or paper loss will grade it no higher than F, even if everything else is perfect. Pen and pencil marks drop the condition to P, though some collectors will be a little forgiving if they are only on the back. Pinholes grade no higher than F, but nails, punched holes and tears rate the card as P. An old card with yellowing or fading cannot be given a pass because of its age.

When I wrote this, I was asked by a couple guys who read through it where I'd come up with the standards. I admitted I'd used several hobby guides and magazines from the 1980s and compacted what they said into my own version. The response was somewhat interesting: when certain "old-timers" who've been in the hobby since that time or before assign grades, they tend to over-grade (for instance, if they say it's EX, you're going to assume it's actually VG). Ironically, the standards as they were written about 25 years ago are as strict as what grading companies use today. However, the long-term sellers are notoriously off in regards to condition, so they obviously paid less attention to them than they did to the prices listed in those same references. 

Personally, I've just come to expect it from some sellers.


  1. Chris, I wrote a whole rambling missive in response to this which just got lost because I attempted to post while not logged into my Google account. Will try to recreate it - although probably a bit more briefly - below:

    I will agree with your notion of dealers who still have an eye that is a bit less strict than the collector when it comes to "amateur" grading. Bill Henderson used to be (and I would wager still is) one of the worst in this category. If you ordered a card advertised in "VG" condition you could expect it to be pretty rough. Cards in "EX" wouldn't just have the normal touched corners, but may have that along with all kinds of really bad centering issues and wax staining on the back, etc.

    The biggest difference for me I guess from when I first started getting interested in vintage cards (we just called them "old" back then) and grading in the late 1980's is due to the professional grading aspect. Back when I was a kid, an old card (generally had to be at least from the 1960's - I still considered cards produced in the '70s to be too new) was NM condition at best. It was generally assumed that even if an old card looked really super sharp, that something had to be wrong with it somewhere if it was that old, so it was generally just labeled NM.

    Back then of course there were also no "tweener" grades, so if a card was not NM, then next rung down on the ladder was EX, which today at least in the slabbed card market covers quite a lot of ground. But generally I stuck with the notion that seems to ring true still in the descriptions at least today - an EX card has corners that all usually exhibit some slight wear - touching, a minor ding, but not full-blown rounding. If a card had a crease on the front, even one that was more of a wrinkle - it was VG no matter how nice the corners. Creases on the back were somewhat less subjective, but if a card was NM otherwise with a wrinkle on the back, it usually did not merit a grade above EX minus or VG/EX.

    The slabbed card market in my opinion has gotten even more out of hand than it was 10 years ago. I have noticed that even PSA which used to be on the 10 point scale has now gone to things like "5.5 EX+" or "6.5 EX-MT+". What is the difference between a EX-NM+ and NM, I would ask? To me that's way too difficult and leads people to start getting out the magnifying glasses. It's easy to get sucked up in that type of exercise (I've been there done that) but quickly leads you out of what the hobby is supposed to be all about into something that isn't much fun.

    While I don't have the time really anymore to be active much at all with my card collecting, I do know that's not the way to go about it. Before you know it you are in dealer-scum mode when it comes to condition, and unable to really enjoy your cards.

    -John Collins

  2. Funny you mention Bill Henderson, John.

    He sold me the '58 Mantle All-Star card I used in the entry.

    However, that wasn't a mail-order thing. I was standing at his table at the National and knew exactly what it looked like.