Buying UK Cigarette Cards? Watch for the Dreaded Four Corners Disease.

There’s a common flaw on international cigarette cards and it often goes unnoticed

While tobacco cards had mostly disappeared in America by the 1930s, that decade saw a large amount of them being printed in the UK. By the 1930s, of course, American cards were mostly being marketed to children instead of adults. As a result, they were largely being offered in packages of candy and gum as opposed to earlier times where the majority appeared in cigarette packages. But cigarette cards were quite plentiful in the UK and they were produced in ridiculous quantities. We know that simply by how many remain.

That’s often bad news with many 1930s cards issued with Wills and Player cigarettes not worth a lot of money. But if you’re a buyer and looking for some inexpensive issues, you’ve got plenty to choose from if you don’t mind stuff other than major American sports. Most UK cigarette cards focused on soccer and cricket, in addition to the vast amount of non-sports cards, including things from actors and actresses to more topical-based stuff, like gardening, scenery, buildings, transportation, animals, and more. You name it and there’s likely a UK set surrounding it.

UK cigarette cards, if you’re familiar with them, are often found in excellent condition. That’s because collectors were generally more adult and took care of their cards. It isn’t uncommon to find mid-grade or even high-grade cigarette cards, especially from the 1930s.

The sense you get by seeing some of these cards is that collecting was simply more advanced across the pond. Collectors went to great lengths to take care of their stuff and it shows today.

Collecting was a big deal there as evidenced by the many albums produced by companies for collectors to store their cards. Now, these albums were often pretty inexpensive and they weren’t of great quality. Essentially, they had covers that were similar to a thick construction paper and pages where cards could be glued or inserted.

The makers of these albums soon found that collectors might not want to glue their cards into them. So they were often created with cut insets, four per card. Each corner would slip into these cuts and the card could easily be removed and put back into position as much as a collector wanted.

This seemed like a great idea. But the problem is that, over time, these cuts pressed into the card much the same way that rubber bands can do to card. If a card was put into an album and never removed for decades, the damage was noticeable with marks or indents being left at the corner areas. Here’s a picture of that with one of mine.

If you’re a low-grade collector and didn’t buy the cards with the intent of grading them, that’s more of an annoyance than it is a cause for anger. But if you are buying the cards with the hopes of having them slabbed, you can end up more than slightly disappointed.

The problem is that, when buying these cards, you are often doing so from sellers over the internet as opposed to in person. Sure, more of these cards are making their way to the United States. But more times than not, you are likely to be buying them from overseas sellers.

That’s a problem, if you condition is important. Sure, that’s a problem when buying American cards, too. Flaws can often be hidden with a shoddy photograph or a scanned image that is unreasonably bright. But most American cards were not stored in these types of albums. And while some (like the example pictured here) have very noticeable marks, others are not quite as clear. Many of the cards can have dents from the album insets that simply don’t show up in a picture. I’ve bought complete 50-card sets that looked fine online, only to have them show up all with corner dents.

The answer is clear. If you’re buying these cards over the internet and condition is a concern, ask questions and keep your expectations within reason. The same advice I offer for buying any card applies here — never buy a raw card with the expectation that it will achieve a certain grade. My expectation, unless a seller implies otherwise, is that the card is low-grade condition. Anything above that is a bonus. You can make out sometimes but others, you’ll be left with egg on your face if you’ve spent a lot of money on a card that turns out to be in poor shape.

That’s particularly true with cards on the rise. Many UK cigarette cards are still relatively inexpensive. But cards of Jesse Owens, as well as cricket and soccer stars, are much more valuable today than they were even a few years ago. More and more collectors are in search of high-grade cards and are playing the gambling game of spending a lot on a card that has the appearance of one that will grade highly.

I should add, too, that UK sellers have always been quite courteous and I do not suspect most are trying to fool collectors with poor images, etc. I have had numerous transactions in the UK and cannot think of a single one where I’ve run into a bad seller or one acting dishonestly. However, this type of corner damage may be the farthest thing from their mind — particularly in the case of sellers that do not specialize in cigarette cards.

I’ve bought thousands of cards from the UK and it’s been, predictably, a mixed bag. I’ve had some cards show up in nicer shape than I hoped. I’ve had others show up with more damage than I expected. And chief among the damage that wasn’t spotted is what I call the four corners disease.

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