From battling the clock to fighting fraud and dealing with crossovers, sports card authentication companies are seldom bored.
Only long-time collectors recall the battles that waged over the introduction of grading and authentication companies to the world of sports cards.
The concept had plenty of detractors back in the early and mid-1990s and thousands of collectors still prefer their cards "raw" rather than entombed in plastic, but there’s little doubt about the impact grading services have had on the hobby.
At the recent Premier Collectible Conference and Exhibition in Chicago, three representatives of those companies–Mark Anderson of Beckett Grading Services (BGS), Mike Baker of Global Authentication (GAI) and Dave Forman, president of Sportscard Guaranty (SGC) answered questions and discussed issues inside the powerful world of professional card grading.
The latest hot button issue is a rise in the number of tampered slabs making their way into the marketplace. One common technique involves breaking a graded card case open and inserting a lower grade card while keeping the label, or "flip" intact. The price difference between grades can be significant enough to make such a fraud worthwhile. One tell-tale sign of a tampered slab is ‘frosting’ which occurs on the sides where a holder has been split apart.
The unknowing purchase of cards placed inside phony slabs and flips now being made overseas can be problematic for collectors, although the issue is not yet believed to be widespread.
Authentication companies are quick to point out their holders should be considered "tamper- evident" rather than tamper-proof, but Beckett claims its holder can’t be pried in two.
“We really wanted to find the best holder possible," Anderson said of BGS. "The lid goes down to the bottom in such a way that it’s completely impossible to crack open our slab and get a card out without completely damaging the integrity of the slab itself. There’s no way to break it into two separate pieces and glue it back together.” Forman says his company tries to monitor sites like eBay to keep tampered holders off the market.
Sometimes collectors want their cards cracked out of a certain company’s holder and graded by a different authenticator. Each company takes pains to avoid damaging a card set for crossover, going so far as to create special rooms with necessary tools at their facilities. Each dissection requires the use of a slightly different method and set of tools.
Experience, even in that area, helps. Forman said some of his employees have years of practice in cracking cards out of holders.
“Some can be cut at the corners with a wire cutter and you then pop a side off with a screwdriver," Baker said.
Altered cards have also become an issue. Some work performed on cards to enhance the potential for a high grade and thus a higher selling price, can be difficult to spot, but Baker believes experienced graders should be able to see such issues. Rebuilding worn corners, removing marks and creases and even improving the centering of a card are all tricks of the card doctor’s trade.
“Paper has certain signatures to it," Baker said. "You can identify nuances that will key your eye to a rebuilt corner, power erasing where you can literally take a number two pencil eraser and a ruler and improve the centering of a card. That’s usually identifiable by having the experience to know that a border is cut a certain way and if a border is a little wider, you can use a loupe to identify the remnant print that used to exist. That card may have gone from a 90-10 centering to 50-50. There’s re-coloring too. I think it boils down to have the experience to look for those traits and stay consistent with grading standard to make sure no altered or counterfeit cards get into a holder. Counterfeit cards are the easiest to detect because you can’t replicate the paper stock used. There’s always a signature to a counterfeit card."
Trimming is the number one issue, according to Forman. “Every grader knows what every edge of every card is supposed to look like. We know what the card doctors are doing, we know how they do it, we know what machines they use and have our ear to the ground trying to find out what new techniques are being used.”
Even modern cards aren’t immune from alteration attempts. BGS will use its unique position in the modern card world to help identify problem cards. "We break open every single product that comes to the market. We’ll take notes on size and what they should look like," Anderson said.
Meeting the advertised turnaround times for cards submitted by collectors and dealers can also be a challenge. Companies do their best to keep their customers happy–and also to save themselves money in cases when those turnaround times are guaranteed.
“Sometimes our employees are sitting there at 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night, driving an hour to a UPS hub to get stuff shipped out," said Anderson. "We understand turnaround times are absolutely crucial in this business.”
According to Forman, having enough employees to handle an unexpectedly large influx of submissions is important, especially when discounts are offered at various intervals. “Our staff has grown by about fifty percent over the last three years. I think we’ve met our turnaround times pretty consistently."
“Speed is important but you want to make sure you put out a decent product and consistent grading," said Baker, who has been in the card grading field since the early days, first at Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA).
After being forced into a sudden move over a lease issue last year, GAI is trying to lure customers to its services again. The company recently announced new financial backing and has added services such as a $10/24 hour digital autograph review, in which a rapid opinion is offered for those who need an answer to authenticity in a short time frame.
One of the companies’ biggest challenges is to find qualified graders to handle the large volume that arrives from collectors and dealers around the world.
“You don’t usually get people who submit resumes with 10 or 20 years of grading experience," Anderson joked. "We advertise year round for qualified people. What will catch our interest is what your interaction in the hobby has been.” New employees at all four companies must pass tests to become authorized to render grades and authenticity.
Forman said each card submitted to SGC is reviewed by two or sometimes three different graders anyway, offering a safeguard.
“Potential graders must take a test," Anderson said. "They need to fall within a certain standard just to get past the first round of interviews. Once you make the cut and get hired, it’s months of practice before you can actually do the work. You’ll apprentice with senior graders. When you get in, you start at the bottom rung and work your way up.”