Understanding the Role of Condition When Buying Pre-War Cards
So, you wanna buy some pre-war cards? Well, I’ve been over a few things already that might help.
For example, here is how some people define pre-war cards. I’ve described one way you can start a decent collection for as little as $100. I’ve talked about easy sets to assemble. And I’ve also mentioned some ways to avoid fakes. Finally, we’ve also covered accurately grading your cards.
Another topic I wanted to cover was to understand the role condition plays in pre-war cards. Here are some important things to keep in mind.
Low Grade, Shmo Grade
Condition, of course, is one of the big determining factors in the value of baseball cards. The first thing you should know when jumping into the pre-war market is that lower-grade cards are generally more accepted when it comes to pre-war cards because of their rarity.
While Poor/Fair specimens are less acceptable in post-war cards, low-end cards are still heavily desired when it comes to pre-war issues. Now, no one in their right mind would rather have a worse looking card than one that is in better shape. But low-end cards are seen more in pre-war cards and there’s a lot of demand for them.
None of this means that high-grade cards aren’t heavily pursued, of course. Plenty of collectors still find the idea of lower-grade cards, for lack of a better word, yucky. But the point here is that it isn’t uncommon to see cards in much worse condition because we’re often talking about cards that are more than 100 years old.
Unlike newer cards, the majority of pre-war stuff out there is at the lower end of the grading spectrum. A cursory glance at the PSA/SGC/Beckett population reports for many issues will confirm that.
Upgrading is Always an Option
Because of that, if you’re not only seeking high-grade cards, don’t scoff at the chance to buy a lower-end issue initially. And keep in mind, you can always upgrade said card later.
For instance, I’ve often been able to upgrade cards, selling my lower-end one for as much as I pay for a slightly (or even dramatically) better example. It takes some patience and bargain-hunting but it can be done.
There are lots of cards that I buy for sets knowing full well that I’ll want to upgrade it later. My philosophy (which is shared by a great many people) is that I’d rather fill a hole in a set with any card and worry about finding the ideal card a bit later.
I generally want to be able to finish a set as soon as possible and then worry about making it ‘more appealing’ later. Sure, that requires a little more work if you want to do it affordably. You’ve got to buy an original, then go back and continue to search for a replacement. And if you’re trying not to spend any additional money, you’ve got to then sell your original at the same price. But it’s still a viable option.
It might seem odd to think that you can successfully do that. After all, why would someone pay the same amount for your lesser card? The short answer is because prices fluctuate, particularly in auctions. The card that you might have bought for, say $20, can easily sell for $25 or $30 a week from now. To really maximize your chances in pulling this off, you’ll want to exercise some patience in not only the buying of an original and buying a replacement, but also in selling your own card for the price you need to balance things out. And if you manage to find good deals in auctions, it will be easier to pull off a switch where you come out even (or possibly even, ahead) financially.
In general, if you want to build a larger pre-war collection, accepting lesser cards will help you a great deal.
Lots of Fish in a Small Pond
So, fine. You’ve decided you’re going to enter the pre-war market. Perhaps, like many, you’ve decided to focus on lower-end cards to more affordably build a collection. Just be aware that there are lots of other collectors doing the same exact thing.
Now, this is less of a problem when it comes to sets like T206 that are plentiful. You might have missed out on that beater Ty Cobb card and chances are that another one will be available relatively soon. But buying Hall of Famers in tougher sets can often be a challenge because, while more expensive versions out of your budget might be available, the lower-grade cards often are sitting in the collections of others and not for sale for some time.
But that’s not even the worst of it, to be honest. This is particularly a problem in difficult sets where you’re dealing with shortprinted cards. Shortprinted cards, cards that were either intentionally or unintentionally printed in smaller quantities than others in the set, are especially tough because they are sought after by set collectors. Sets can be put together and then remain unsold for a very long time so you can really be playing the waiting game there. That can mean to acquire one you’ve to fork over more money for a higher-graded card simply to fill the hole.
In short, the bulk of pre-war collectors out there are buying lower-end stuff. The degree, of that, of course, will vary. But a large amount of collectors stick to the Poor, Fair, Good, and Very Good items (i.e. cards graded from Authentic up to 3).
That seems annoying because there is lots of competition for those cards. But in the end, it’s a really good thing for the hobby. Having that many collectors buying those cards helps keep prices up, ensuring the cards retain and increase in value.
Pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin had several mantras and one of them was DTA – Don’t Trust Anybody.
Now, that’s probably a bit too extreme. When buying cards, there’s always got to be a level of trust involved or, well, your collection will never get off the ground. But be very wary when it comes to condition.
Assuming the cards are authentic, buying low-grade has few hassles, really. It’s one of the reasons I prefer buying lower end stuff, particularly online. When I’m buying a card advertised as Poor, I’m not real concerned if it’s got an extra crease I missed when evaluating it, etc. Some collectors are ultra picky when it comes to that and if you’re buying stuff that isn’t low-end, you should be. But sorry, I find it difficult to get worked up if a card I’m buying that has like six creases also has a small pinhole I might have missed in evaluating it. No big deal and, frankly, I couldn’t care less.
But when you should care with respect to condition is if you’re buying a card that’s being advertised as high-grade or medium-grade. Trimming, the practice of shaving a small amount of a card’s border to eliminate flaws such as corner wear, is a big problem with pre-war cards. Even simply measuring cards isn’t always accurate because cards were not cut with the same precision they are today. Often, you’ve got to evaluate things like how cards were cut, which is out of the scope of most collectors. Cards can also be recolored and doctored in other ways as well that can go under the radar until graded.
The bottom line is that, if you’re buying a card that is being advertised as high-grade but is raw and ungraded, in general, that’s a pretty bad idea. Yes, there are raw gems out there and collectors can make quite a bit of money gambling on one of those and then having it grade out very high. And yes, we shouldn’t rely on graders to be perfect. But, most of the time, there’s a reason that apparent high-grade cards are not slabbed. Often, cards were previously graded and were considered to be trimmed, recolored, or otherwise doctored.
If you are making a large, expensive purchase of a card that is believed to be high-grade, always think twice – even if you know it’s authentic. Or, if you are enamored with the card, make sure you’re not paying high-grade prices when you’d be better off spending that kind of money on an already-graded specimen.