Ten Ways to Help Avoid Fakes in the Vintage Card Market
In addition to which sets to collect or how to start a collection of pre-war cards, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how to avoid fakes.
The best answer, really, is that knowing what’s legit and not legit is best learned with experience with certain issues. Until you get a feel for handling certain cards and seeing them in person, identifying fakes can be somewhat difficult. Even if, for example, you’re familiar with T206 cards that same experience may not always translate over to trying to determine authentic Goudey cards.
Also, always consider the player. A Babe Ruth card is much more likely to be faked than your average, everyday common card. Fakes of lesser cards do happen. A lot. But generally, those aren’t happening at anywhere near the rate of big name cards.
Keep in mind that these are more guidelines and not rules. These are merely things you may see in fake cards but they are not 100% foolproof.
Watch for the Infamous Fake Brown Cracking
This is one of the most common things seen in fake cards. It’s so common, in fact, that I’m surprised sellers are still pushing these things.
These are fake wrinkles and lines intended to make a card look old and worn. Most of the time, cards exhibiting this kind of look won’t be authentic. Here is a close-up of what I’m talking about and you are likely to see this throughout the entire card.
Most cards, when worn, will hardly ever show this type of thing. One of the few cards where you do see legit cracking like this is with T207 cards. That’s because those cards were printed with a card stock that had a glossy type of finish on them and over the years, those do crack. That doesn’t mean that every T207 you come into contact with that has cracking is legit. But those cards are known to have some cracking while still being authentic.
Make Sure Ink and Fonts Match Authentic Issues
High-quality fakes will usually be sure to match authentic issues. However, poor ones often do not.
You always want to make sure the style of font on a card is the same as the font on authentic issues. T206 is a good example of this. Authentic T206 cards have a specific type of font and the font is also printed in dark brown ink. But some fakes have a different font or ink printed in black ink.
The brown ink/black ink thing can be tricky because authentic cards often have really dark brown ink that can look black. But many fakes and reprints are easy to spot. Here’s a comparison of the two with a fake/reprint font on the left and an authentic one on the right. In addition to the color of the font, note things like the line spacing.
Thoroughly Read eBay Descriptions
This one sounds so rudimentary that you might be inclined to skip over it. But this is important. Really important, actually. I’m a pretty thorough buyer and have even been burned here.
News flash – not all sellers are scrupulous. As I recently wrote, there are lots of shady things eBay sellers are known for when it comes to baseball cards. One of those things is by providing cleverly-worded descriptions. Some eBay sellers won’t outright lie. Instead, they’ll be deceptive about listings.
For one thing, many selling reprints do not state them as reprints in the title. But you have to go deeper than that. One thing to check for is if a seller identifies a card as an Original or Reprint in their description. This is an option that sellers can choose to include. Many times a seller will not call a reprint anywhere but in that location, which is found in the Item Specifics box above their description.
If they don’t state it there, read the description. Carefully. Bad sellers don’t want to be kicked off of eBay so they will often be very clear about an item’s authenticity. And by ‘very clear’, I mean that they will usually be as deceptive as possible. This can include statements like ‘unknown authenticity.’ When you see something like this on an ungraded card, usually the best thing to do is to run in the other direction.
Avoid the Impossible
One thing to always consider is to check if everything ‘matches up.’ What do I mean by that?
Ensure that a card checks out and is not an impossibility. The Honus Wagner T206 card is a great example of this as it is one of the most widespread faked cards due to its value.
Wagner’s card was pulled early from production in the T206 set because it is believed he did not give his permission to be included. As a result, his only known examples all have either Piedmont 150 Series backs or Sweet Caporal 150 Series backs. Wagner cards with any backs besides those are not authentic.
Along those lines, always make sure the ink colors are correct.
In T206, for example, there’s no such thing as a red Old Mill back or a Green Sweet Caporal. Similarly, 1939 Play Ball cards were printed with black backs not purple, orange, etc. If you’re unfamiliar with a certain set, always be sure to look for authentic examples first as a point of comparison.
Go Beyond Feedback
This is true anywhere but particularly true on eBay, where seller feedback is often used as the barometer for qualifying good sellers.
A seller’s feedback rating is very important, so don’t take this the wrong way. However, it shouldn’t be the only quality by which you judge a seller.
Often, sellers dealing fake merchandise will go the extra mile to make buyers think they are honest. One way to do this is to establish a positive seller rating, often with hundreds of positives. The flaw with eBay’s feedback system, however, is that all positive feedback is seen as equal feedback. If a person sells 100 ten-cent baseball cards and gets 100 positive reviews, that counts as 100 points. If a person sells 100 authentic Ty Cobb cards, each worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, that counts as 100 points. Thus, sellers can sell hundreds of very inexpensive items to gain trust and boost their rating.
The really wacky thing is that a seller can make a bunch of small purchases as a buyer, and accumulate just as much positive feedback. If a seller buys 100 pencils from 100 buyers and they all leave positive feedback, they will have 100 points just as in the scenarios described above. Fortunately, eBay allows you to see if a person accumulated their feedback from buying or selling but you have to perform extra steps to find that.
Always look at a person’s feedback. Was it mostly as a buyer or seller? What kind of items did they sell? If a seller deals mostly in used children’s clothing, how likely is it that they would own a dozen legit Babe Ruth cards?
Evenly Worn Corners
Older cards often exhibit worn down corners so that’s no surprise. But in fakes, one area where sellers often slip is by making a card look too evenly worn.
Worn corners typically happen over different rates. Maybe the lower right corner gets repeatedly dinged placing it in and out of a binder page. Maybe another one was cut. But corner wear usually doesn’t happen to all four corners at the same rate.
That’s not to suggest that cards with nearly perfect wear on the corners can’t happen. But you typically see cards with different measurements of corner wear. Additionally, some corners will display certain characteristics not seen on others, such as chipping or fraying. Here’s an example of an authentic card shown here that helps show this.
As you see here, the lower left corner is the one that has been the most worn down. The upper right corner has more fraying than the others and isn’t quite as round as the rest. Different corners with different amounts of wear.
This one is always tricky because differences are usually slight. But in person, it’s a little easier to see the type of wear and that the corners will usually vary.
Check Return Policies
Always check a seller’s return policies on cards. eBay is pretty good with giving buyers protection and Paypal is even better. While many eBay sellers offering returns will give you 30 days to return an item, Paypal gives a few months.
30 days is nice but keep in mind that it often will not allow you sufficient time to get a card checked out by a third party grading company since it can often take more than that to receive a card back from them. It’s always good to confirm with a seller beforehand (in writing) that they will take a card back if deemed to be not authentic by a third party grader.
Treat Fantasy Pieces and New Discoveries with Skepticism
The allure of owning a previously unknown card can be hard to ignore. Despite the fact that many pre-war cards have been around for more than a century, we are still finding new cards from that era. There are legitimate cards that are new discoveries and, as I wrote recently, a new Babe Ruth card was just reported recently.
Chances of new discoveries, however, will usually be against you. If a card isn’t known to the hobby and you find it on eBay, there is a chance it is legitimate. That chance, though, is small and has to be vetted carefully before making a big purchase. Things like autographed 19th Century cards and unknown sets always have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Pump the Brakes
Sometimes, all you need is good old fashioned common sense when trying to weed out fakes.
In the days of the internet, people are quickly able to do their own research to determine if a card they might have is valuable. These days, a non-collector can quickly be educated with the click of a mouse. In other words, if someone really discovers a large collection of old, valuable cards, what are the chances they’ll suddenly end up on eBay with a starting bid of $.99?
Does that sort of thing happen? Sure it does. Just recently, a seller found an ultra rare Ty Cobb card and put it on eBay. Despite a lot of skepticism, the card turned out to be 100% legit and is now headed to auction. But again, stuff like that is few and far between. For every one of those stories, there are hundreds of examples of sellers moving items with ‘unknown authenticity’ that turn out to be garbage.
It may be kind of annoying to miss out on the potential score of a lifetime. But throwing hundreds or thousands of dollars away at a forgery can be a painful experience. If uncertain on a card or collection, it might be best to pump the brakes and try to learn more first. Contact the seller and speak to him/her by phone if you can. Study their selling history. Do as much due diligence as you can before jumping in, even realizing that you might miss out on an item.
Buy Graded for Expensive Purchases
Obviously, with the altered cards scandal, this one will be treated with some skepticism by others. I fully get the desire to run the other direction when it comes to graded cards right now and they aren’t known for the type of security they were in the past. Collectors should always do their due diligence and that includes when buying graded. I’d also add that now isn’t necessarily the greatest time to make a huge purchase on an expensive highly-graded card.
All of that said, you’re still often going to be better off buying a graded card if you have questions about spotting fakes or alterations.
That extends, of course, beyond physical protection of the cards. Third party graders judge cards for authenticity and generally offer a good bit of expertise. That’s not to suggest that they’re perfect by any means, as we’ve seen. But when buying high-dollar cards, it’s always great to have another opinion on a card’s authenticity and that is what they can offer in addition to a technical grade.