Other than losing a collection of cards or having a prized collection stolen, it may be a collector’s worst nightmare. Each year, collectors are duped over and over by purchasing fake or altered cards. With improved printing capabilities and other technologies, it is easier than ever to create authentic-looking forged and altered vintage cards. While no 100% foolproof way exists to avoid being ripped off entirely, here are some easy collecting tips that might help when buying cards.
Buy Graded for Big Collecting Purchases
It isn’t necessary to buy graded cards in all instances. Many collectors prefer keeping their cards “raw.” But there’s a difference between buying a $10 card and $1,000 card. For those big purchases, buying graded can offer peace of mind. While graders do occasionally make mistakes, buying a graded card at least means an expert has reviewed it and given you an opinion on its authenticity. Graded cards also help collectors who are positive of their authenticity, too. Keep in mind that, even if the card you’re buying is good, a graded card is usually easier to sell to someone else in the future who wants some additional peace of mind.
Also understand that if a high-dollar card (especially one in great condition) has not been graded, there’s usually a good reason for that. Most sellers these days know that to capitalize on high-grade vintage that they need the card to be graded. Perhaps it’s been submitted previously and deemed not authentic. Perhaps it’s clearly not authentic and a seller hasn’t wasted his time. Maybe, even, it is authentic but has a significant flaw that is hard to spot. Ungraded high-dollar cards should toss up a red flag unless you’re dealing with a seller who has owned his cards for many years and simply never graded anything.
One grading caveat, of course, is that the Big 3 (PSA, SGC, and BGS) generally have the best reputations. Buying cards from other grading companies isn’t usually as reliable and, many would argue, should be avoided entirely.
Finally, be sure to even give scrutiny to any card you buy–graded and ungraded– both in terms of authenticity and grading accuracy. A common term used in the collecting community is that you should always buy the card and not the holder. And, by the way, that holder should receive your attention, too. Experienced forgers have taken to cracking open graded cards, and replacing an authentic version with a replica or lesser copy. You want to inspect the edges of a case to check for tampering and also check the serial numbers of graded cards to make sure they match up with what the grader has in its database.
Know Your Seller
In the days of internet purchases, this one has become extremely important in collecting cards. Collectors have a variety of sellers now at their fingertips and it’s important to know just who you’re buying from. Certain metrics, such as eBay’s feedback system, can be helpful. But even those often require more digging. Does a seller with high feedback have that feedback from purchases they made or from other sales? Another question to ask is if they have a history of selling that item? Many sellers specialize in all kinds of antiques and not merely baseball cards. It is easy for them to unknowingly sell a counterfeit or altered card.
Knowing your seller is also important when it comes to refund policies. Will they make good on something that’s not legit? Make sure you understand a seller’s policies before you buy and, if you’re buying in person where no electronic paper trail exists, get a receipt.
Finally, good sellers know their reputation is important to to them and will work as hard as possible to maintain that. Look for established sellers with good track records. Even the good sellers can make mistakes and unknowingly sell a bad card. But even if a card is outside of an established refund time limit, some will provide a refund anyway as they’d rather keep their reputation intact and hope you become a return customer. Seek out good, established sellers whenever you can.
When Possible, Consider Using Plastic
The dreaded credit cards. Dealers hate them, right? Sometimes. For buyers, however, they can be beneficial. Credit card companies hate fraud and want to protect you. If you want to make a high-dollar purchase, it might be in your best interest to use a credit card as some will refund your purchase if an item you buy turns out to be fake. This is where having a receipt and any other documentation proving you bought something that wasn’t as advertised will come in handy.
Buyers should know that credit cards can be a hassle for dealers, though. Some will charge an additional fee to cover the processing costs they incur from the credit card company. And dealers also fear chargebacks – the process of a buyer expressing regret over making a purchase and asking their credit card company to step in to void it upon return of an item. Because of that, using a credit card may not always be practical for sellers. But often, it can add a layer of protection for buyers and could be a good option when available.
Compare Cards to Other Authentic Examples
Comparing cards to other examples can be helpful when trying to determine authenticity. If you’re collecting a set and have plenty of examples, how does the card you’re buying stack up to those? It should obviously look and feel the same if you’ve been buying authentic cards.
If it’s an unfamiliar issue to you, that can be a little trickier. In this case, a good way to aid your assessment of the card is by comparing it to other likely authentic examples. If buying in person, check to see if a dealer has graded copies from the same set. That will allow you to do things such as compare the color and measurements.
Use a Loupe or Magnifier
One thing every vintage collector should have is a loupe. A loupe serves as a magnifier, which can help detect flaws that might otherwise go unseen, such as coloring.
Loupes can also be used to examine the printing patterns on cards, which can be a telltale sign if a card was printed recently as opposed to the correct time period. When looking for things such as the correct printing style, they can be very helpful in comparing the card to other likely authentic examples. Loupes are generally inexpensive and can be found on eBay. Beckett’s Head Grader, Andy Broome also has some good tips regarding finding the right type of loupe.
Avoid Paypal Friends and Family Payments
Some dealers may invite you to pay for a purchase using Paypal’s Friends and Family option. This works like regular Paypal in that money is transferred to a seller but it differs because, in general, it doesn’t offer much in the way of protection.
Sellers often will ask buyers to use the Paypal Friends and Family method so they can avoid paying fees on the money received. But while beneficial to them, it can be detrimental to a buyer who needs to make an exchange later. Some unscrupulous sellers may never even send an item purchased online since a Friends and Family method doesn’t constitute any sale of goods or services.
A dealer may promise to make a better deal with a Friends and Family payment instead of using regular Paypal, which is designed for sales. But by doing so, a buyer takes on a great deal of risk.
Too Good to be True?
You know the old adage, ‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.’ That applies to card collecting as well. That isn’t to suggest that great deals can’t be had. Sometimes a seller simply doesn’t know what he/she has (and the discussion of taking advantage of sellers is another topic for another time) and good deals are still out there. But if you’re dealing with an experienced seller, the chances of you making a great score on a card they don’t know about are relatively slim.
Even if dealers aren’t familiar with specific issues, most are savvy enough to know to ask someone that does or consult past eBay sales or a price guide. Chances are that the dealer that’s been in the collecting business for 30 years isn’t going to have an authentic T206 Ty Cobb in high-grade condition for a couple hundred dollars in a display case. Established sellers might cut you a deal on a card but they aren’t going to give things away, either. And if it’s a seller with a store that has a lot of customers, why exactly has the card been passed by so often?
Also, as previously stated, know who you’re buying from. While it’s true that sellers of antiques in general might not be as up on baseball cards as you are, many are doing their homework, too. Or maybe they’ve been duped themselves by buying bad merchandise. Things like pawn shops and antique shops can be ripe for sellers of fake items because of their inexperience. Just because you stumble upon what looks to be a rare issue from a seller that knows little about baseball cards doesn’t mean you’ve struck it rich. Those cards, it can be argued, deserve even greater scrutiny.
Don’t be Afraid to Walk Away
We’ve all been there. You stumble upon a card you desperately need to fill a hole in your collection. The price is right but you’ve still got reservations. For vintage collectors searching more scarce issues, this can be an even bigger problem since you don’t know if/when another opportunity to buy will present itself.
Weigh the risk and don’t be afraid to walk away until you can gather more information. Maybe that entails getting a second opinion from someone you know and trust. Research the dealer and do your due diligence. Sometimes that means more time is needed and you can’t make a purchase right away. It might be hard to do and you might even miss out on a deal. But if a card is no good, you’ll thank yourself later.