Can You Spot an Altered or Restored Baseball Card?

Sports card restoration has become a hot topic in the hobby. Can you spot evidence that shows the work of a card doctor?

by Kevin Saucier

As the collector begins to get more serious about sports cards, knowing how to recognize a card that has been tampered with, manipulated or altered becomes paramount. Making a significant financial investment only to have a card rejected by a third party authentication company happens quite frequently. Sadly, where there is money involved, there are shady characters to be found.

In the early days of the hobby, when value was virtually non-existent, cards were sometimes intentionally altered for the sake of convenience rather than monetary gain. The early sports collector could have cut a card to fit in a photo album, colored it to add just a little more eye appeal or erased pencil marks. Considering professional ‘card doctors’ are now better than ever, it’s best to be able to recognize these modifications so that you are assured that you are buying a card that is authentic and unaltered.

Card Trimming

Let’s start with the very basics of trimmed cards. This is an area of great importance to collectors and is more often than not the most common problem found with cards that have been manipulated. Cutting the edges of a card can sharpen a corner or fix an edge quickly and with amazing results.

The first test is to make sure the card has the proper measurements. Most large baseball card price guides, such as the 2010 Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, will have information on the true measurement of the majority of card issues. Use a ruler that has both metric and standard U.S. measurements accurate to 1/64”. Many modern era cards vary little to none from the manufacturers’ exact specifications. This can be credited, for the most part, to modern machinery and computers.

Vintage cards, especially cards issued prior to World War II, can be a little more difficult to identify. Since the cutting of cards in the early years of production was not an exact science, many of these cards were cut with little regard to accuracy or consistency. These were cut, at times, with various widths and lengths. Authentication companies take this into consideration and may assign a grade to card that may be short either in length or width but still be within the limits of authentication and grading standards for that issue. Unfortunately, this can also be helpful to the “card doctor” since cards cut larger by the manufacturer can be trimmed down to fit within measurement guidelines, eliminating the original dinged corners and nicked edges that hurt the grade. This is where knowing how to identify a trimmed card may be beneficial.

Some key indicators to tell if a card is trimmed

The best way to tell if a card has been trimmed is to remove it from any holder it may be in so the edges can clearly be seen and studied. Edges on a normal card will be slightly rounded and have somewhat of a rough porous appearance when magnified. A trimmed or sanded card will be flat and/or smooth in one or more spots, this is the most common indicator. Lightly run you finger along the suspected edge, if trimmed it will feel much more smooth than the other sides. If possible, check another card in case all four edges have been trimmed.

Look at all the edges and corners of the card under a halogen light and a 10x jeweler’s loupe.  Both are essential to inspect a card thoroughly. A normal vintage card will be slightly toned (light brown), a trimmed card will magically reveal a very white appearance compared to a naturally toned edge when held under a halogen light. It will be surprisingly evident. The flat edges may also become more apparent. Modern cards may have less wear and no toning at all.

Crimped edges and corners are another thing to look for. Edges and corners are pushed down by the initial cut, this is where the most pressure is applied. Since most cuts are made with scissors, scalpels or razor blades, a cut card will almost always show signs of tampering. Again, a halogen light and loupe should tell all.

When under magnification or a loupe obvious (missed) cut marks or stray hair-like paper strands left over from the cutting utensil may be visible. With the card lying on a flat surface, look at both the front and back. Some trimmed cards may have wavy or uneven edges or have a slant cut or flared corners that are ever so slightly higher than the middle edge. This is usually generated from the person cutting the card with scissors.

Card Bleaching

Card bleaching is an attempt to use chemical agents to brighten or whiten a card. Bleaching can hide or mask stains, remove the naturally harsh toning of a card or clean up an off-white border. There are several ways to tell if a card has been bleached or chemically treated. First is the ‘nose test’. Almost all chemicals create a distinct odor that permeates into the cardboard stock. If you suspect a card has been bleached, simply hold it up to your nose and sniff. If you smell anything at all, chances are some sort of chemical has been used. This, of course, won’t help in an online auction or purchase.

Look to make sure the card does is not faded yet very white color. Since chemicals and bleaching agents can affect the entire card, colored ink on the back or pictures can show signs of fading, discoloration or look lighter than normal; this is in addition to clean white borders that would accompany the card. If the card has any creases, chemicals can whiten the inside of the crease and give it an unnatural look as well.

Check the card for faint stains. Bleached cards tend to mask many stains but may not completely remove them. Most if not all vintage cards have some degree of toning, it may not be on the card front or back but most assuredly on the edges. This again, is where a halogen light and a jewelers loupe come in handy. Check the edges to see if that light brown toning is present. If a card is bleached, the edges will be as well.

Many times it is best to know the cards you are collecting. A good example would be the Cracker Jack cards of 1914 and 1915. These light bordered cards with an attractive red background are often found with caramel or other very obvious stains. Since many carry a high value, they would seemingly be a prime candidate for bleaching. Serious collectors of Carcker Jack cards know that they were printed without any white ink, therefore any pure white color or very bright borders would be a sure sign that the appearance of the card has been enhanced or bleached.

Stain/Mark Removal

The removal of tape, tape stains, gum or wax stains, pencil, pen or other marks is something that is often overlooked when making a card purchase. Chemical agents or erasers can be used on areas to remove these stains or marks. Look at the card for areas of light water or chemical spots as they will often leave their own stains when a larger darker stain or mark has been removed.

Check the cardboard stock for any signs of rubbing or swirl marks. Erasers and chemicals that are rubbed into in an effort to remove a deeply imbedded mark will break up parts of the cardboard fibers. This area may look like a faded spot, slight but somewhat large indentation or cardboard fibers that don’t match the rest of the card.

When looking at the back of the card, pay close attention to the printing on the back. Black ink that has been rubbed or erased will be noticeably lighter in color when compared to the rest of black writing. The majority of the time these marks can be seen since stain removal usually covers a larger portion of the card.

Color Enhancement

It is widely speculated that color enhancements or added color spots by use of paint, colored pencil or markers were usually done long ago just to make a worn card more aesthetically pleasing. These types of enhancements were not used to fool a potential buyer but to satisfy the individual collector.

By looking at the card under light, the added color spots or areas will cause a break in the card’s gloss. These areas will have a dull-like appearance when used on the face or the back of a card. At times, the color enhancement may be brighter then the gloss which will still be noticeable under the light. A black light can also be used for this inspection and will often pick up on other types of enhancements.

Small ‘touch-ups’ are frequently done and can be very difficult to see. This is done in an attempt to trick the buyer into thinking a card is in better condition than it actually is. Dark bordered cards, such as the 1955 Bowman baseball issue, can easily have color added (in this case brown) to enhance the look and hide worn corners. For this type of alteration you will need to look at the edges of the card. The added color will usually seep through and bleed onto the edges. Under a light and with a loupe, look very closely for dull or higher glossed areas. On dark bordered cards study the edges for color seepage. For white areas, use a blacklight or check for spots that seem whiter than normal, often this may be just a tiny spec on a corner tip.

To truly get a firm understanding of what to look for, take some inexpensive cards and experiment on your own. Cut edges with a variety of devices, sand edges with an emory board, color different spots and corners, then study the areas you altered. As stated throughout this article, I cannot mention the use of a halogen light (preferably 50 watts or higher) and a10x jewelers loupe enough. Armed with these two inspection tools you should now have no problem recognizing the basics principals of an altered card. By being especially careful and using some of these techniques, collectors will have the knowledge tomake a more educated purchase and identify areas of concern.

About the writer:

Kevin Saucier has been collecting sports cards since childhood. He started submitting cards to 3rd party authenticators ten years ago. Not unlike most advanced collectors he purchased a valuable card only to find out that it was trimmed. Vowing to never let this happen again he tried to learn everything he could about card alteration techniques.

To understand ‘card doctoring’ he needed to become a card doctor, albeit an honest one. Once proficient, he started submitting his altered cards to various grading companies in an effort to test the limits. So far, none of them have been rejected. He now alters cards in every conceivable way in an effort to educate collectors at all levels about the variety of techniques that can sometimes fool even the most experienced collectors and professional graders. Many advanced collectors and hobby insiders now consider Kevin to be one the top experts in identifying altered cards. His knowledge and opinion is frequently used by collectors across the nation to validate cards suspected of being doctored or of questionable authenticity.