People often ask if Small Traditions has special arrangements or back door deals with PSA and BGS, two of the hobby’s leading grading firms. How else could we get so many PSA 10 Gem Mints and BGS 10 Pristines for our consignors every month? The answer to the first question is invariably no. PSA, or Professional Sports Authenticator, is a division of Collectors Universe, a relatively large company that is publicly traded on the Nasdaq stock market under the handle CLCT, and Beckett Media, home of Beckett Grading Services, or BGS, is an established publishing firm that has been in business for nearly 30 years. Ever see the magazine Victorian Homes at the supermarket? That’s them. Or how about Gun World or Diesel World or Drive? Yup, all products of Beckett. Although some casual collectors on the fringes of the hobby suspect the worst of authentication companies—and for good reason; the hobby has endured countless forgery scams and inquisitions by investigative journalists and even the FBI—to those who work closely with PSA and BGS, the idea that these two respected companies would ever engage in collusion or some other type of fraud is laughable.
The answer to the second question—how does Small Traditions get so many PSA 10 Gem Mints and BGS 10 Pristines—is almost just as simple. We sort millions upon millions of cards every year. Every day at Small Traditions, USPS, FedEX, and UPS deliver packages stuffed with old cards from our consignors, and we also buy product by the pallet load. We don’t crack wax boxes, we crack cases: set cases, vending cases, cello and wax cases, hundreds of cases every year. But anyone can accumulate cards. Indeed, every other house in every town in middle America has a stack of shoe boxes or white vaults or monster boxes somewhere in its attic or in the dusty recesses of its garage or cellar—please, get them OUT of the cellar; they should be in the attic, where it is dry. These boxes are mostly filled with worthless, overproduced trash from the 1980s and 1990s. But you know the old saying, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure? It’s true. Even the most worthless of cards from the so-called junk era can now fetch $10s if not $100s in top grades, and many insert cards from the 1990s are now selling for $1000s and even $10,000 and more.
So you’ve got some old cards. Who doesn’t? The hard part is figuring out what to do next. Sell them as is? Grade them? Give them away? Trash them? Or better yet, recycle them? This blog post is the first in a multi-part series about preparing your cards for professional grading. Even experienced hobbyists often assume that they can submit their cards “as is” to PSA and BGS (or SGC or ISA or GAI, there are more than a few grading companies in the market). However, these submitters couldn’t be further from the truth, and this is precisely the reason so many hobbyists are often disappointed with the results of professional grading.
In addition to using up to 10x magnification beneath bright white halogen light to examine every square millimeter of both surfaces and all four corners and edges of every card you submit for grading, it is important to learn how to handle cards by their edges so that the oil and dirt of your fingerprints don’t mark the cards. Unfortunately, many cards, especially newer, glossy cards, have already been mishandled, and even if the cards are perfect in every other way—centering, corners, edges, and print quality—they won’t grade higher than Mint 9 if their surfaces are marred with smudges and fingerprints. But who wants Mint 9s? We want Gem Mint 10s, right? So here’s a detailed 10-step prescription for cleaning and handling dirty cards in preparation for storage and/or professional grading. You’ll need a few things to get started, including penny sleeves and semi-rigid Card Savers from Cardboard Gold or Ultra Pro, lens cleansing cloths from your local camera shop, a damp sponge or paper towel, a bunch of a free time, and a whole lot of patience.
- Always wash your hands before handling your cards, and repeat as necessary when your fingers get sweaty, as they often will. It also helps to have a fan against which to dry your hands when they do get clammy.
- Work on a clean, smooth, and clutter-free surface. I often like to work on top of an over-sized top loader to ensure that there aren’t dust and other particles that might scratch the susceptible surfaces of newer cards.
- Holding your first card by its edges, the way you might hold a CD or DVD, examine first the reverse surface by tilting it under the reflection of your light.
- If you encounter smudges or other unidentifiable grime on the card’s reverse surface, lay the card face down on top of your clean surface.
- Using a plastic penny sleeve to hold the card in place, use your lens cloth to clean the area of the surface that is not covered by the penny sleeve. If the grime won’t fully disappear, then lightly touch your lens cloth to your dampened sponge or paper towel, and repeat. Wipe in the same direction, and wipe until you see no more smudges, only the perfect reflection of a clean and totally pristine surface.
- Flip the card around and place the penny sleeve over the surface area you just cleaned, and then repeat the same process as above. Take your time, and repeat as necessary.
- Once the back is perfectly clean, use the penny sleeve to help lift the card off of your surface so that you don’t smudge it again. Remember to hold the card only by its edges, and hold it lightly.
- Flip the card over and repeat the same cleaning process for the front surface. Be patient, and repeat until all smudges are gone. Understand that scratches won’t disappear, but this process can certainly help to lessen their impact. Please also understand that a dirty lens cloth will only continue to smudge the card. Even though they are expensive, you should replace them often.
- Using a penny sleeve to lift the card off your surface again, and holding it only by its edges, carefully insert the clean card into a fresh penny sleeve so as not to nick any of its corners. Now insert the penny sleeve-protected card into a semi-rigid Card Saver, and move on to your next card. Note: I like to put my finished cards into plastic bags so even the Card Savers stay fingerprint- and dust-free. Also, penny sleeves are not necessary for cards produced in the 1980s and earlier, and they can be both annoying and dangerous, but for the newer, glossier cards, they give graders something to grab onto when they pull the cards out of their semi-rigid holders, thereby preventing them from leaving their own fingerprints behind.
- Fill out a submission form from PSA or BGS, and then package up your cards per each company’s particular submission instructions. Address and insure your package, drop it into the mail, and then move on to your next round of orders. Don’t forget to stand up and stretch, go for for a walk, talk to a friend. Working with cards can be long, lonely, and laborious.
As you can see, preparing cards for professional grading is a very delicate process, but this is only a very small part of that process. What about cards that appear a little smaller than other cards? How can you be sure that these cards have “natural” edges and haven’t been trimmed or otherwise altered? Surely you don’t want to ruin your hard work of preparing your submissions by accidentally including “doctored” cards. And what about cards that appear to be dirty or smudged but that have already been graded? Can you regrade them? Can you remove them from their holders? Or what about cards that have a protective skin on their front surfaces? How the heck do you peel that thing off without ruining a corner or an edge? And finally, what about older cards that have wax on their front surfaces? Isn’t it possible to remove that wax without damaging the card? After all, if your 1960 Topps #350 Mickey Mantle card had a bugger stuck to its front surface, wouldn’t you just flick it off? Of course you would!
The controversy over so-called card doctoring is more relevant today than it has ever been, but at Small Traditions we draw the line at either adding or taking away anything that isn’t essential to the card. You cannot add extra color or gloss to a card’s surface. Neither can you trim or shave an edge or file a corner. Evidence of these sort of shady tactics is about as obvious to a professional as are the signs of an impending summer thunderstorm to a stadium full of baseball fans. If you’re buying raw cards off of eBay or from dealers at card shows and conventions, nothing can guarantee that all your cards will be clean and unaltered, and unfortunately, altered cards abound in raw, ungraded form. Neither PSA nor BGS will ban you from using their services if you occasionally submit a questionable card, but the same cannot be said if the activity becomes a trend.
To conclude on a more positive note, however, I’d like to briefly answer the final few questions proffered above. The answer to the issue of wax is remarkably simple and can be summed up in just two words: ladies pantyhose. That’s right. Or in one word: nylons, stockings, leggings, hosiery, call it what you want. But if you apply the same process as above and rub the surface of a wax-stained card with a small swatch of pantyhose instead of a lens cloth, the mesh fabric will lift and trap the wax as you go, leaving nothing but an ultra clean and polished and bugger-free surface in its wake. Just don’t let your wife of your girlfriend catch you stealing her favorite pair or, worse yet, shopping for your own!