If that vintage baseball card looks a little too bright, chances are someone might have done a little doctoring…and maybe even gotten it past the grading company. Some tips on how to spot a ‘chemically-altered’ card from our mad scientist.
by Kevin Saucier
Card bleaching is an attempt to use chemical agents to clean, brighten or whiten a card. Bleaching can hide or mask stains, remove the naturally harsh toning of a card or clean up a dirty border or section. Just because the word "bleaching" is used to define this type of alteration, it does not necessarily mean that ordinary household laundry bleach is used in the process. Also, the term bleaching does not always pertain to whitening an area. Chemical solutions can be used to revitalize a card and make other colors appear more vibrant. This is especially true with lighter colors. The solutions can all but eliminate years of natural wear, discoloration and dirt.
There are several ways to tell if a card has been bleached or chemically treated. First, and most simple, is the "nose test". Almost all chemicals create a distinct odor that permeates into the cardboard stock and can stay there for quite some time. You may be able to detect the scent of something other than an ambient odor. If you suspect a card has been bleached, simply hold it up to your nose and sniff. Since cardboard is virtually odorless, if you smell anything abnormal, chances are it has been chemically treated. Obviously, his won’t help in an online auction or a purchase where you cannot physically hold the card.
Look to make sure the card is not faded, while at the same time have sparkling clean white areas, brighter than normal colors and/or borders. Since chemicals and bleaching agents can affect the entire card, ink throughout the card or certain colors can show signs of fading. Depending on the card stock and age, black lettering can appear dark gray, red ink may turn slightly orange dark blues may appear a shade lighter and so on. Again, you will often see this is in addition to bright clean white areas. For the most part bleaching is not confined to one small area. You will need to look at the big picture.
The card to the left has had its normally bod background colors faded by being immersed in no less than four different very harsh chemicals. I twas submitted for grading with a very noticeable chemical odor.
If the card has any creases, wrinkles, scuffs or deep pores, chemicals will work their way inside and give it an unnatural look as well. Creases and scuffs, however small, frequently expose raw cardboard. Bleaching agents can seep into this crevasses and make that entire area surprisingly white. It doesn’t take much experience or training to be capable of spotting this altered area.
An example of chemicals soaked into cracks and scuffs. Note the abnormally white creases
Most, if not all, vintage cards have some degree of toning or a natural aging. It may not be on the card front or back but most assuredly on the edges. This is where a halogen light and a 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. This should be the primary focus of the overall inspection, as in a trimmed card, the edges will the key to identifying a bleached card.
Check the card for faint stains. Bleaching is not always used to make a card brighter and better, it is sometimes used to mask or cover stains, residue or marks but may not always completely remove them.
The blurry spot in the middle of the Hegan card is where a stain was removed.
Chemical solutions that were not well mixed, incorrectly used, incorrectly mixed or cards that were exposed too long or not long enough may have their own special problems or telltale signs. Depending on the year and cardstock some cards will be affected differently. Stains that were not already present can suddenly appear. Dark spotting, white spots or marks and light stains can develop. Oddly enough, some solutions will bleach a card but leave darker spots at the corners and/or borders by the card’s edge.
Using the same Hegan card, you can see where a very faint stain suddenly appeared. It did not exist prior to being treated.
Bleaching a card is usually done by a card doctor to increase the value. It is can be submitted to a grading company in an attempt to raise the card grade. Depending on the card and its rarity, this can often mean the difference of thousands of dollars. As an example, to a lesser degree, this 1933 Goudey Fred Leach card was originally graded by PSA as Ex 5 (MK). The MK is an abbreviation for “Mark” and typically reduces the value by two grades points, in this case it would have the value of a PSA 3. The mark on the reverse side of this card was chemically removed and submitted to another grading company where it was graded EX 5, thus increasing the value by two grade points.
In the process of removing the mark and giving the card better eye appeal and more white border, chemicals seeped into an unseen exposed area of the card and then spread. This small white dot is an indication that this card was potentially altered.
Placing a suspect card under a black light can reveal many types of bleaching agents. The card to the right had no dirt or natural tone on the edges, tiny chips, crevasses or any part of the card. It was unusually white and the colors were vibrant. This is a key indicator that it has been bleached or chemically cleaned. A quick look under a black light showed that the card has more than likely been doctored to improve its condition and appearance. Look at how bright it is next to a normal card of the same issue. Both have been authenticated and both are the same high grade.
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.