In the world of sports cards, a couple of grades can make hundreds or even thousands of dollars of difference in the price of an item. A PSA 9 Mickey Mantle has sold for over $200,000. A PSA 7 brings less than half that amount. To the average person, there may not be a huge difference in how the two cards compare. Collectors and investors do pay for what’s printed on the flip. What about autograph grading? Does a highly graded ball or photo bring a premium? The short answer is…it depends.
“The autograph grade greatly affects the value of a signed ball, but not a signed photo,” said Ben Milch of SigPrices.com, an online autograph price guide. “For example, a Mickey Mantle signed ball authenticated by PSA DNA without a grade sells for an average of $472. That is the equivalent of a ball being graded as a 7.5. Meanwhile, grades above 7.5 sell for a definite premium. The same ball authenticated by PSA DNA as an 8.5 grade sold on eBay over the last three months for an average of $723. That is an increase of 53%.”
“However, a signed 8×10 photo of the Mick is a different story. For example, in the last three months on eBay, an 8×10 Mantle signed photo authenticated by PSA DNA without a grade is selling for approximately the same price as the photo authenticated graded a PSA DNA 9. Sometimes, the graded 9 version (see here) is even outsold by the ungraded version (see here).
In the case of PSA DNA, graders take the condition of the baseball into consideration when issuing a grade. However, because of the impracticality of grading the huge variety of other items that can carry a signature, photos and other signed items are graded only on the quality of the signature.
While professional sports card authentication and grading has been around for about 20 years, autograph grading is a relatively new concept. The service has only been available for a few years and even now, many collectors choose to only have an item authenticated rather than pay extra for a grade.
“A common misconception about autograph grades is that the value of an autograph increases as the grade increases,” Milch told Sports Collectors Daily. “Since grading autographs is a recent phenomenon, prices tend to fluctuate because there is still not enough data to analyze a true price for an item. So, an autograph graded a PSA DNA 8 may actually sell for a higher price than a PSA DNA 9 simply because the graded 8 version sold earlier in time before many other autographs could be given grades. Over time however, we expect these prices to normalize to reflect the grading scale.”
Grading can have a huge impact on iconic rookie cards from the modern era. As of now, that’s not necessarily the case in the sports signature market.
“For modern autographs, the grade is not much of a factor since nearly all modern autographs are so new that they are rarely graded below 9. For vintage autographs, the grade is a larger factor because of the condition and legibility of the autograph. Buyers always want to pay a greater price for a crisp, clean autograph that looks as fresh as if the signer did it today.”
So if you’re buying the best you can afford, with an eye for quality and maybe the hope that down the road you’ll see a small return on your autograph grading investment, Milch has some advice.
“For autographed baseballs, items graded above 7.5 usually sell for a premium, but a collector can pick up a nice autographed baseball at 7.5 or 7 grade that would be a nice addition to the collection without breaking the bank,” he stated. “For other autographed items, the grade will vary depending on the scarcity of the item. Signed photos can often be obtained in grade 8 or 9 without hurting the wallet, while signatures on rarer items like letters will be pricey no matter the grade.”
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