Collectors are well served by looking for eye appeal of cards instead of technical grades
‘Buy the card, not the holder.’ I’m not sure where the phrase originated from, but since the grading of cards began, this is something commonly uttered.
But what does it mean?
In its purest form, I suppose, it means that collectors should pursue cards that they personally like instead of how they may be scored by a third-party grader (i.e. PSA, SGC, and Beckett). Dragging it out a little bit, the exact thought is that a card’s eye appeal should at least be considered when buying graded cards and that a card should not be solely evaluated by a potential buyer on only its technical score.
Now, none of this is to suggest that grading companies have no role here. To the contrary. Grading companies are particularly important in the landscape of today’s collecting, as I outlined here. To me, they aren’t only nice to have, they’re something that is sorely needed.
Thing is, many collectors are tied to a card because of a particular grade it has received. Now, that even includes me to some degree, despite the fact that most of my cards are not graded. When I recently strayed from the pre-war arena and bought a Dwight Gooden rookie card, I purposefully sought out one that had received a score of a perfect 10. That’s not typically important to me but because it is a particularly common card, it just meant a little more to me knowing that it was graded perfectly.
Sometimes, though, we take the numbers too seriously. The problem occurs when we start valuing cards purely based on how they are graded instead of what we truly think about the card’s flaws. Here’s why that’s wrong.
First, graders are human. Now, these folks typically do a heck of a job in at least following the guidelines they have set up. We can often quibble about a grade but very rarely are the grades entirely off the mark when you consider how many cards have been graded. But mistakes can and do happen, and the problem with simply taking graded cards at face value without actually looking at the card is that you are assuming that every grade is perfect. Or, in another context, that the card is graded the way you would grade it.
Second, even if you deem a card is technically graded correctly, the amount by which that card may vary from the a card with the next grade up or down can be ridiculously small. Now, if you’re into the business of buying/selling cards, every grade should matter to you. But if you’re a collector just looking to buy something for yourself that you don’t plan to sell, do you really want to pay an extra $100 or so for a card that is one grade higher but looks the same as one that is slightly lower? Probably not.
All 1s Are Not Equal
Where the ‘Buy the Card, Not the Holder’ mantra is possibly most helpful, though, is in distinguishing cards with the same grade. Simply put, not all equally-graded cards are really equals.
Case in point, a grade of 1 is assigned a whole gaggle of cards. Sometimes, those cards can have significant flaws. Other times, they may have one unforgivable flaw.
For example, here are two Ty Cobb T206 cards. One is the red background version while the other is the green background card.
The red background card was recently sold in a Mile High Auction. It has a clean front and back, and is a flat out gorgeous card. Unfortunately, it has a small pinhole just above one of Cobb’s eyes. Otherwise, this would be a very attractive, and expensive, mid-grade card. Next to it is a PSA 1 of Cobb’s green background card, which happens to be mine. It has some corner issues and has a few creases. Not the worst card in the world but certainly nowhere near the equivalent of the red background card in any way.
Both cards, however, are technically graded the exact same way.
Now, personally, I think the way we approach certain flaws is incorrect. These two cards clearly should not have the same technical grade in any universe. After all, is a small pinhole that is barely noticeable as egregious as a card with several creases?
The good news is that most savvy collectors have come to realize this. The Mile High card sold for more than $1,150, despite its low grade. If the card was a PSA 1 and in similar condition to my green background card, it likely would have probably sold for maybe about 65%-75% of that.
Best Eye Appeal Examples Often Found in Authentic Cards
Sticking with the low-grade theme here, one of the best sources for cards with high eye appeal are Authentic graded cards.
Cards slabbed with the Authentic label usually spell trouble. Usually it means that the card has been altered or so badly damaged that it does not even deserve to be called ‘Poor.’
Now, I’ve sort of disagreed with that as I think that too many cards graded Poor should really be Fair (and, thus, Authentic cards should simply be Poor). But regardless of that opinion, collectors often will stay away from these cards.
Authentic cards, however, can present some of the best images of cards at times. That sometimes comes in the form of trimmed cards, which may otherwise be nearly perfect but have an edge shortened. Sometimes, those cards can have damaged backs, such is the case with this Buck Ewing card I purchased that has some paper loss.
An Authentic card with high eye appeal will have to almost always include a significant flaw that you might not be willing to consider. However, if you’re simply looking for a card with a clean image that looks nice and can live with other flaws, Authentic cards are often a great buy.
Buying graded cards is a great way to collect. Just make sure you’re not basing a card entirely off of the grade assigned.