How to Grade Your Cards … Accurately. Somewhat.
While flipping through my regular searches on eBay on a daily basis, I generally find several cards graded inaccurately by enterprising sellers. That, of course, isn’t a surprise since grading, even at the professional level, is somewhat subjective. We’ve all undergraded or overgraded cards. It just happens.
This past week, though, I found myself stumbling across numerous wildly-inaccurately graded cards from various sellers. I’m not talking about subjectivity here. I’m talking about listing ungraded F cards as EX or other similarly-egregious examples. No, I’m not going to point out those listings here. That wouldn’t really be fair since this is such a widespread problem. But, if the grades assigned are that far apart from reality than there’s a real issue.
Note that I am basing my thoughts more on how I believe the grading companies grade collectively as well as interjecting some of my own thoughts. It should be noted that the two primary grading companies, PSA and SGC, do not even agree on every grade’s scale. So, this is, as other resources, merely a guide.
Note: The pictures here are just pretty pictures and not meant to be indicative of a specific grade. PSA has some great pictures along with their grades if you want a better idea of what a specific card should look like.
A Pre-War Disclaimer
Before I get into the official grades, one thing that needs to be noted for pre-war collectors is that grading is grading. Just because a card is more than 100 years old doesn’t mean it should be graded on a curve. A 1″ crease on a T205 card is just as significant as it is one on a 2017 Topps Chrome.
That makes finding pre-war cards in high-grade all the more challenging. Grading your old cards on a curve is just flat out incorrect. When dealing with pre-war cards, I get why sellers do it and I get why buyers tolerate it. These are old cards and if you’re a high-grade collector, it stands to reason that there will be more of them around (and, thus, easier to obtain) if we loosen the grading restrictions a little. But it’s still not a correct measure. A near-mint card from today should be held to the same standards as a card from the 1800s. Perhaps things such as discoloration can be accounted for in the same way we account for minor flaws today as a ding to a corner, etc. But it’s still a flaw and must be considered as such.
The Gem Mint Quandary
This is a term that was added by third-party graders to go above and beyond ‘mint.’ Frankly, the definition is kind of silly since previously, ‘mint’ was used as the categorization for a virtually perfect card, anyway. The funny thing is that even gem mint doesn’t mean perfect, according to graders, as it sort of implies.
PSA, for example, allows for centering as bad as 60/40 on the front and 75/25 on the back to be a gem mint card. SGC says their centering has to be 55/45 to achieve that status. I never quite understood how that qualifies as saying a card is gem mint. If mint was virtually perfect beforehand, what is gem mint? Virtually perfect with a little extra? Now, to be clear, SGC does have their own ‘perfect’ rating of Pristine, which does require 50/50 centering, so their gem mint rating makes a little more sense. But you can see how the whole gem mint thing is, like the rest of grading, sort of subjective.
In my mind, this grade shouldn’t really be used by sellers of ungraded cards. You’re just opening a can of worms far too great with potential buyers.
This is generally the most accepted term for a nearly perfect or perfect card not professionally graded. It’s a card of the highest quality and one that should be perfect or really, really close to it. In the days before ‘gem mint’ came around, I think you could argue that this should be a perfect card. But there’s more wiggle room for that now.
A mint card should exhibit no more than one very minor flaw – a print mark, tiny gum stain, etc. SGC allows for a slight nick to one corner but if I were selling a card and calling it mint, I wouldn’t personally allow for that. Why? Again, that’s a really subjective area. What might be minor to you is bigger to someone else. The only real flaw on a mint card, in my opinion, should be a factory-created issue – print mark, tiniest trace of a gum mark (talking like a very small dot here), etc. When you get into corner issues of any sort, I think that should go down to near mint to play it safe.
This is where sellers like to make their money. Calling a card mint often opens you up to all kinds of scrutiny with the slightest defect and that’s where near mint comes in. Near mint offers a little bit of wiggle room with one or two small issues such as a tiny gum stain, ding on a corner, slightly off centering of about 65/35, etc. There probably shouldn’t be more than two of these flaws present if you’re calling a card near mint.
For the record, each of those two grading companies has more than one NM category, so this can be a pretty broad category. But to me, that’s being over-dramatic for the sake of being over-dramatic. Really, the only reason those numerous categories exist is so that the companies could achieve a ten-point scale and come up with enough grades to fill the gaps. Near mint, to me, means exactly what it sounds like – a nearly perfect card that isn’t quite mint. Too many near mint categories muddies the water, which is basically how sellers get away with calling everything in sight near mint. If you’re selling an ungraded card, I think this covers two of the small flaws mentioned above.
Like gem mint, this is another grade that we could probably do without, to be honest. As a seller, I would never use this term when discussing an ungraded card – it’s even more subjective than the near-mint grade. Usually, this is meant to refer to a card that can have a slightly bigger problem than near mint would allow.
Maybe it’s a slightly fuzzy picture but otherwise really nice card. Instead of a ding on the corners, maybe a little more fuzziness to one. One thing that EX-Mint cards shouldn’t have are creases and it’s mind-numbing to see sellers use this rating for a card that has wrinkles of any kind. That, simply, is not an EX-Mint card, no matter how the rest of it looks. If you’re selling a card with the slightest trace of a wrinkle or crease, simply put, it doesn’t belong here.
Excellent cards are where a lot of buyers of vintage like to reside. This is also where you’ll see a lot of raw stuff. Anything better from a vintage standpoint and there’s usually an interest in having it graded.
These are very high-quality cards with a few small flaws. SGC and PSA appear to differ here in that SGC allows some wrinkles/spider creases (visible only on one side) while PSA does not make mention of those in their EX grades. I tend to go to with PSA there and don’t think a card with any of those really belongs here. A wrinkle/spider crease of any sort should automatically push a card to VG-EX for me but I realize that’s not a consensus view. If you’re selling an ungraded card, I would avoid pushing any card that has even a light wrinkle or crease as EX.
Basically, EX cards can have a few more issues. Some nicks to the border, perhaps. Pretty light wear to a few corners, weak centering, a scratch or two, etc. There’s no real identifier for the number of these things that can occur and that’s what makes it difficult. Graders, I’m guessing, would likely tell you that it’s based more on how pronounced those deficiencies are.
VG-EX (Very Good-Excellent)
A VG-EX card is where we really start getting into the lower-end of the mid-grade cards. A light crease is allowable here and I stress the word light. The type of crease we’re talking about here shouldn’t be a pronounced one. These are mostly creases that you might miss at first but are visible upon a closer look. Very small, very faint.
The corners might be very slightly rounded (truthfully, I’d say more slightly worn than rounded) and there might be a few scratches. Could be a larger gum stain. Maybe it’s pretty off-center but with few other issues.
VG (Very Good)
I mentioned EX is where a lot of vintage buyers like to hang out. Well, VG is probably the ‘it’ category for many pre-war collectors that don’t want beaters.
It’s somewhat difficult to find pre-war cards above this grade aside from overly populated issues like T206. That’s especially true with raw cards. You rarely see raw cards above this grade – at least compared to the numbers of low-graded stuff out there.
These are cards that will have slightly rounded corners, a slightly worse crease (but not terrible) than the small one you might see in VG-EX, minor edge wear, etc. If I had to sum it up here, the phrase ‘nothing too crazy’ probably is best. These cards will show a little bit of wear but, other than centering, shouldn’t really have a major flaw.
Okay, if you’re a low-grade collector, this is the best of the best. These cards can have a significant problem or two. Creasing is probably the biggest thing here. These types of cards will allow for at least one good crease or a few small ones as long as nothing else is too bad. Cards can be off-centered, have some rounding of the corners, a significant stain, etc. Like I said with creases in the VG category, those rounded corners shouldn’t be bad. A Good card shouldn’t have corners like a playing card – that’s just too excessive. We’re talking more worn than rounded here.
The creasing for me has always been the big thing with this grade. Keep in mind that while a big crease or a few little ones are okay here, numerous big creases shouldn’t exist. If that happens, you’re down to Fair. I routinely see cards with many (like 7-8 creases) thrown into this category haphazardly if the seller feels there’s not much more wrong with the card. That’s incorrect by most reasonable standards.
Aside from graded cards, these are to signify cards that are a little better than worst of the worst. These cards can usually have several creases, significantly round corners, significant edge wear, a major stain, some small paper loss, etc. If a card has all of these, it will mostly likely be graded poor. But if only a few, it can usually fit well here.
The best way to describe this category is bad but not awful. It can have major issues but shouldn’t be outlandish like half of the back missing, a lot of writing, etc. A small number written in pen? Fine. Crossing out all of the player’s statistics for other years he played on your favorite team’s rival or drawing facial hair and glasses? No bueno.
The P (Poor) and Authentic Debacle
I started with a grading debacle that third-party graders have given us so it seems appropriate to end our grades as such.
Prior to third party grading, Poor cards were generally considered the worst. These days, the worst graded cards are called ‘Authentic.’ Starting with the latter first, Authentic cards are basically those that have a serious issue but deemed to still technically be a card. It’s a real card but it might be trimmed down, have a mostly or entirely skinned back, etc.
In my mind, it’s just not something needed and while some sellers will use it for ungraded cards, it’s mostly a term used for graded issues. But if you are looking for a good thing that came out of the Authentic designation, it’s probably been that it has helped shrink the size of the Poor category. I still contend that the Authentic designation isn’t necessary. To me, we’ve just been miscategorizing many cards as Poor instead of Fair. But that’s another discussion.
Okay, back on track here. So if we toss the Authentic rating for ungraded cards, how do we separate Poor from Fair? Well, that’s really tough if we’re not dealing with something like a factor that, if graded, would make it Authentic (trimmed, skinned, etc.). Any one of those things and you’ve got yourself a Poor card at best.
To me (and this isn’t necessarily a popular viewpoint), if we throw the Authentic grade out the window for ungraded issues, Poor cards should be reserved only for absolute beaters – major paper loss, more creases than Babe Ruth has home runs, more major writing, etc. Cards with several creases and a stain aren’t really Poor to me. That should probably be Fair since I don’t deem that worse than a card that’s heavily trimmed, written on, etc.
All of that said, it isn’t always best to try to squeeze a card into the Fair category to get a few more bucks. The best advice I can give here is to play it safe. If you have a card with paper loss and a few creases, don’t split hairs. Throw it in this category. Unless you blatantly leave out flaws, by calling a card Poor, you’re really cutting down on the amount of trouble you should have as a seller. I think it’s reasonable to list cards as Fair if they don’t exhibit things like writing or paper loss. But, even if you don’t technically think so, if it has one of those two things or another really dicey issue, Poor is your best bet if trying to be honest.