This is an ongoing series on the differences between collecting vintage and modern cards. The previous installment discussed the value (long-term) of vintage and modern cards. This installment covers card grading.
Personally, I missed the explosion of card grading in the 1980s. I do remember the very early ads in SCD by Alan Hagar with his ASA Accugrade service. PSA had not come along yet. Cards were really booming at this time. I wish I could remember prices, but even fairly recent cards like the 1975 Brett and 1974 Winfield rookies carried a pretty hefty cost. Go a little older (1969 Ryan rookie) and prices were really climbing.
Pre-WWII vintage material was also going up in price. I can personally vouch for the fact that many dealers (just about all with whom I dealt) sold cards that were advertised as VG or so but were Good or Fair when they arrived. I never sold any cards in the 80s, but I have heard that many dealers would try to downgrade cards when buying. The market probably had unscrupulous collectors back then, but the general sense seems to be that many dealers were taking advantage of collectors. When third-party graders promised to provide a neutral opinion on condition, collectors jumped for it. Dealers, who were more than happy to sell what buyers wanted, also bought into the craze. Throw in fake Pete Rose and Michael Jordan rookie cards, and grading had a firm hold on the hobby.
In retrospect, the problems are obvious. At least one grader sells its own graded cards in eBay. At least one grader has been accused of giving preferential grades to larger clients. The trusted third-party graders can have their own agenda. Furthermore, as oversights in grading circulate through message boards, the skill level of the graders has been questioned as well.
Despite their problems, graded, or slabbed, cards are just about the rule with vintage cards priced much above $50. Indeed, if a seller is trying to move a high grade card that is not slabbed, or raw, buyers will question why the seller would leave money on the table by not having the card graded for resale. The suspicion will be that the card is altered and has been rejected by the major grading companies. Many collectors who participate in card registries have no desire to buy a card that might look nice but for some reason will not garner a certain numerical grade. More maddening is the amount of grade speculation that goes on. It goes like this… There’s a nice SGC 40 T206 Red Cobb on eBay. I’ll buy it, crack it out, and submit it to PSA. I bet it gets a 4, maybe a 4.5. I can then flip it for a quick profit.
How about the modern scene? Almost nothing is graded. Cards come out of packs in essentially mint condition. They are treated gently and put into boxes (not a Keds shoe box). Nobody is putting the cards in bike spokes, hole-punching them for in-store redemption, or pasting them into scrapbooks. Condition just isn’t a major issue because most anything from after 1980 is in really nice shape. Similarly, doctoring cards – trimming, coloring, power erasing, soaking, pressing, etc. – is apparently not a problem. The cost and effort of grading (and doctoring) do not make sense in the less expensive realm of modern cards. Because almost nobody wants his modern cards graded, set registry action on modern sets is almost non-existent.
So, grading, which was suppose to clean up parts of the hobby, has maybe helped but also introduced new problems. Vintage cards have born the brunt of these problems for the fact that they are more valuable that modern cards. While grading has its advocates, in my opinion, grading introduces a lot of hassle for collectors and both literally and figuratively separates collectors and their cards. Because you don’t need to deal with grading as a modern collector, the entire topic of grading makes modern cards much more attractive than vintage cards.