Short Card Measurements are not Always an Indicator of Alterations
In the pre-war era, card sizes were not always consistent
All kinds of alterations have been cited in the recent card scandal being uncovered by Blowout. Many of the cards alleged to be altered, though, have involved trimming.
Most collectors are familiar with this kind of alteration. Trimming is slightly cutting a very thin edge of a card to help make the edges and corners sharper. If undetected, the card appears in better condition and is subsequently worth more money. But in reality, a trimmed card, no matter how good the rest of the card looks, should greatly decrease its value.
Trimmed cards, of course, will be slightly smaller than regular untrimmed cards. And because this alteration has been missed quite a bit by card grading companies, collectors are wondering exactly why said graders can’t detect it simply by measuring a card. But while I can’t say which graders measure cards and which do not, the issue is that detecting trimming is more complicated than simply measuring a card.
Now, in more modern cards where printing technologies are greatly improved, it’s a bit of a different story. Those cards don’t have much, if any variance in terms of size. Pre-war cards, however, are entirely different.
Simply put, the printing capabilities and cutting standards 100 years ago were not what they are today. That has led to the sizes of pre-war cards varying quite a bit. Now, that isn’t to suggest that card sizes should vary wildly. But it is very common to see cards in the same set measuring slightly, or even significantly, differently.
Even in the cases where technology allowed for the accurate cutting of cards, quality control was not nearly as strict as it is today. Companies simply didn’t care if a card measured a bit off. We know that because there are all kinds of size variances on cards. If you have a stack of, say 50 cards, from, say, a 1910s pre-war tobacco set, you can test this theory for yourself. The cards will almost certainly align differently when stacked and stood on a flat surface.
For example, here are some cards from my T206 collection. As you can see, these cards are not the same size even though they technically should be. These are not trimmed cards so you can see how using strict measurements to determine if they are altered is not reasonable.
The Ball card here ‘measures short’, which is a common saying for cards that are a bit shorter than they should but ones that have not been trimmed. The Fletcher shown here provides good evidence of how a card could be cut by the printer on the short end. The top and bottom borders of it are oversized, meaning there’s a good chance the card(s) above and/or below it could be shorter than they should be.
And even beyond the actual size, some cards have what is commonly referred to as a ‘diamond cut’, making for a card that is not a perfect rectangle in shape.
So how can you determine if a card has been trimmed? This article has a nice breakdown of how to detect trimmed cards One way is to put the edges under magnification, as indicated there.
As a disclaimer and a point of clarification, I do think graders should be measuring cards as part of their evaluation. This is not a reason for them to avoid that step. That is particularly true for rarer issues where they are seen by graders less frequently. If a card varies greatly, that can be a good indication of trimming. However, minor (even somewhat significant) size variances do occur and that isn’t always a telltale sign a card has been trimmed.