So You Wanna Grade Your Cards? Here are the Basics.

Here’s an FAQ on how to have your cards professionally graded

How can you have your cards graded? It’s a popular question being asked more and more by collectors — particularly those that haven’t been involved in the hobby for a while. A lot of collectors have had collections sitting untouched for a very long time.

Obviously, junk era stuff from the late 1980s and early 1990s is less desirable and typically, much of it is not worth grading. But condition-sensitive issues such as the 1993 SP foil cards can be much more valuable than you might think. Earlier this fall, a PSA 10 Derek Jeter from the 1993 SP set sold for more than $70,000. Safe to say, not all junk era cards are created equally.

But while grading cards may be commonplace to some collectors, many don’t even know where to start. Here’s a FAQ of sorts on card grading. There’s lots more you can learn and study but here are some of the basics.

What is card grading?

Cobb E98 Black Swamp Find PSA 9Card grading is simply the process of a third party company reviewing a card and assigning it a grade based on its condition. As I’ve written before, they are pretty essential to the way cards are collected these days.

In general, cards are graded on a scale of Authentic to 10 (Authentic being the lowest). The higher the grade, the more valuable the card will be.

There are three grading companies that are widely respected by most collectors – PSA, SGC, and Beckett (BGS and BVG). While each one grades a little differently, cards graded by any of those three are generally accepted by most as ‘reputable.’

Many other grading companies exist, but their cards are not generally accepted by mainstream collectors. A ’10’ by another grading company, for example, will not usually hold much weight.

Collectors should take note of two types of graded cards besides the three mentioned. GAI is a grading company that used to be widely respected but was also known to give high grades to many cards that have trimming or other flaws. Some of their cards are graded accurately but others are not. Buying a GAI card is always a bit of ‘buyer beware.’

Also, BCCG is an economy type of grading offered by Beckett. Their grades operate on a different scale and are not viewed with the same scrutiny as their other cards graded by either BGS or BVG (BVG is for vintage cards). Like GAI, you may find a good deal with a BCCG card but it is also a ‘buyer beware’ type of thing. Here is how Beckett distinguishes between its three entities, BGS, BVG, and BCCG. In general, if you want to use Beckett, you’ll typically want to use their BGS or BVG entity.

What should I grade?

This is the million-dollar question because, really, it’s different for everyone. I won’t cover them all here, but these are my own personal rules.

In general, though, if you have a card that is valuable, it is usually worth having graded. That is especially true if you plan to sell the card because many collectors will not buy an expensive card that is not graded.

Buck Ewing N29 Allen and Ginter SGC

How are cards graded?

Cards are graded either as ‘Authentic’ or on a scale of 1 to 10.

Authentic is the lowest grade a card can receive. That merely states the card is real but will either be in very bad shape or have a major flaw. Most collectors will try to gauge how high a card will grade and then use that as the justification to have it graded or not.

If a card is found to be a fake, it will be returned, ungraded.

Note that an authentic card does not always mean it is the least valuable. That’s because some ‘Authentic’ graded cards look very nice but may be trimmed, altered, or have a small pin hole. Many collectors value a card’s eye appeal and a card graded ‘Authentic’ may sell more than a card that is graded a 1 or a 2 if it looks really nice.

When a collector says a card will grade ‘numerically’, they are saying a card will be graded as more than just authentic. It will get a score from 1-10. 1 is the lowest of the numerical grades and 10 is the highest.

How do I send cards to graders?

Each of the company websites linked above will walk you through their particular process. But basically, you’ll package your cards up, complete a form identifying the cards, submit payment, send them (always send with insurance), and then wait. You’ll also pay up front for return shipping so that the cards will be sent back to you when done. Shipping alone (your shipping and the return shipping) can cost you about $30 or more, depending on how valuable your cards are.

How should you ship your cards?

That’s entirely up to you but Card Saver I cases are often a preferred method. I generally ship my cards inside of those, inside of a bubble envelope, inside of a box so the envelope cannot move around.

Before you ship your cards, it’s also a good idea to take pictures of them. While rare, grading companies can damage a card. Having a picture of it before it was sent will allow you to compare the newly-graded card when it comes back to you to make sure that no damage was added to it. Companies have been known to sometimes compensate collectors if a card is damaged by them.

How much does grading cost?

It all depends on the level of service you want and how expensive your cards are. The cheapest cards are generally around $10 to grade, although you can usually have some done for a few dollars cheaper if a company is running a special. But if you have more expensive cards, the price will be higher. For example, PSA charges $50 for a card with a declared value of $500 up to $1,999.

You always want to weigh grading costs, including your shipping both ways, to determine if it’s worth having a card graded. Your shipping with insurance might be $10 and then another $20 coming back. If you have more expensive cards, it can be more. Those fees are on top of the per-card fee you will pay to have a card graded. And additionally, larger, oversized cards can cost more, too.

Now, obviously if you’ve got something like a Honus Wagner T206 card, you’ll want to have it graded as quickly as possible. But is it worth it to have a low-graded 1933 Goudey common graded? From a financial standpoint, probably not. Some collectors, however, do grade cards that aren’t all that valuable because they simply enjoy having cards in the plastic cases. If it’s an authentic grade or only a 1, it’s value might even be about the cost to grade it.

Also note that if you want your cards back faster, it will also cost you more.

How long will it take to have my cards returned?

This is a tough one and it typically varies. While companies advertise a service time, those are only estimates and they are not bound by them. Currently, all three companies are believed to be running behind schedule as there is a lot of demand for grading.

Sometimes cards may be a week late. Other times, a few weeks. Sometimes they may be on time. And in the case of things like bulk submissions where companies offer a discount for having a lot of cards graded at once, you can wait several months.

On occasion, companies will grade cards at shows so you can have them back on the same day or by the next day if you attend the show. However, that is rare and, by comparison, expensive.

What if I disagree with a grade?

If you disagree with a card’s grade, you have a few options. First, you can try contacting the company to see if the grader or a representative can explain why it received the grade it did.

You can also resubmit the card to the same company for a review/re-grade. Keep in mind, you’ll need to again pay the shipping, return shipping, and a fee for the review. Even if a card comes back with a higher grade, you are still charged those fees.

Finally, you can also try to submit your card to another company. They will then grade it in their own holder. Obviously, they may give it an even lower grade so that is a strategy that could backfire.

How are graded cards protected?

When graded, a card will be sealed inside of a plastic case. The case, for obvious reasons, cannot be opened and closed. It is sealed to protect the card.

It should be noted that the cases are not indestructible. While all are sturdy, the PSA cases seem the easiest to damage while Beckett’s seem the hardest. If you want to remove a card from a case, it is relatively easy to do so with some basic tools and by watching a YouTube video.

Collectors should also be wary of cases that have been carefully opened and then closed again. Some scams include opening a case, removing the valuable card and replacing it with a lesser card (or even a reprint), then resealing the case. This is rare, but does happen and you’ll want to inspect a case for signs that it has been opened if buying a very expensive card.

Does grading a card increase its value?

Babe Ruth Beckett BVG 1933 GoudeyIn almost every case, yes. The degree to which it increases it will vary depending on the grade. But a card with a perfect 10 grade will often be drastically more valuable than an ungraded card.

Grading also typically adds a little bit to even low-value cards.

How can you store graded cards?

Many collectors think that a box is the only way you can store graded cards but that is not true.

While many collectors use different types of boxes or cases for them, they can also be stored in binders by using the four-pocket plastic sheets used for postcards. Most of those sheets will accommodate all of the types of slabs for standard-sized cards that the grading companies use.

You’ll obviously want to keep those binders flat or upright and not jostle them around too much as the cards can come out of the sheets. But if you want to prevent that, you can also add a strip of clear plastic packing tape to the openings in the sheets to keep the cards secure.

Terminology

Finally, here are some terms you might hear with regards to grading:

  • Cracking: Breaking the case open that is holding a card
  • Encapsulated/Slabbed: A card that has been graded and is enclosed in the plastic case
  • Eye Appeal/Presents Well: A card that, despite whatever grade it has been assigned, generally looks very nice
  • Flip: The label at the top identifying the card and the grade
  • Registry: This is a system created by grading companies to help collectors keep track of their cards and show them off with the ability to compare them to other collections of the same cards.
  • Slabs: The plastic cases holding the card
  • TPG (Third-Party Grader): This is merely a generic name for a grading company

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