In 1981, a scam artist sold fake 1963 Topps Pete Rose rookie cards at the Philly Show. Three years later, 10,000 fake Rose cards were confiscated in California. They were among the first widely reported instances in which the growing values of baseball cards led to outright efforts to use fakes as a way of making a handsome profit.
In some ways, the fake Rose cards marked the end of an era where collectors could buy without worrying all that much about whether their cards were real or not. It also marked the beginning of a cottage industry of fake cards that have become more sophisticated over time.
While unscrupulous individuals were also known to trim, recolor, or otherwise alter cards to make them more appealing to masses, it generally wasn’t all that common decades ago. Losing a few bucks on a card back then is a lot different than someone losing thousands on a fake card, a fake slab or an outright counterfeit today.
Spending hard-earned savings on a card only to discover it’s not the real deal is frustrating. The economic loss is bad enough, but the added distrust sowed by interacting with a scammer makes it worse.
Spotting Fake Cards
The techniques used by scammers have evolved. What was once used to forge vintage cards has changed to produce today’s counterfeit modern and ultra-modern cards.
This article gives some pointers on spotting fakes and how counterfeiters are adapting to sell forged versions of cards.
“Counterfeiters and card doctors have become more sophisticated since my awareness began in the 1980s,” said Andy Broome, Vice President of CSG, to Sports Collectors Daily. “But part of that advancement in sophistication has to do with the advancement in technology. More accessibility to better technology at cheaper prices makes it easier for counterfeiters to produce a ‘better product.’ Is it difficult to make high-quality fakes? For many, it will be, but not for all.”
Vintage Sports Cards
Scammers will often add artificial damage and aging in order to make a home made counterfeit card look like it has natural wear. Some will round a card’s corners and use staining techniques. Other scammers will add wrinkles or make it look like it was once pasted in an album. Slight trims of a rough edge or corner are other signs to look out for.
One way to detect fake vintage cards is by using a loupe, a small magnification device to see small details. The loupe can help buyers note the print patterns on a card. While the printing techniques of the late 19th century and early 20th century can take a great deal of research and time to understand, a basic understanding can go a long way.
A pre-war card with a patterned dot matrix is likely a fake. Typical printing patterns of authentic pre-war cards are less defined and somewhat irregular.
Blacklights and the Light Test
Another small investment can be made in a black light. Because of brighteners added to post-WWII paper stock, a black light will cause fake cards to glow, while older paper will not light up as brightly.
Yet another simple test only requires a cell phone flashlight. One can tell if it is fake by shining a light on a card. The light will not go through an authentic vintage card because those cards were made with thicker paper stock. If the light shines through, the vintage card may be a reproduction.
The exception to the light test for vintage baseball is the 1959 Topps set. A light will shine through the cards in the set because of their lighter paper stock. It’s also possible that a few authentic cards let the light shine if a different supply of paper was needed at the time of printing.
But CSG’s Broome also says that testing the cards with various lights is one way out of many to check a card’s authenticity.
“The more amateur counterfeit cards can be found on obvious modern stock or paper that will have optical brighteners added,” Broome says. “More sophisticated fakes are created with stock that is more appropriate to the original and, in some cases, built with ‘donor’ cards from the same set/era contemporary to the original cards. This is where we rely on technology to assist the expert grader in detecting these types of fakes.”
Most Forged Cards
Ryan Nolan, author of Spotting Fakes: Examining the Top 50 Fake Sports Cards and the proprietor of the Breakout Cards social media accounts, has spent the past few years immersing himself in the world of bogus cardboard.
“I bought a fake Mario Lemieux rookie card at a card show, and a subscriber told me it was fake,” Nolan said about how he gained an interest in detecting fake cards. “I thought fakes had only applied to higher ticket cards like a Mantle rookie, Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie, or MJ Rookie. From there, I wanted to educate myself and others from what I learned.” He later created a video with 23 ways to identify a phony Jordan.
Some of the most faked cards from his experience include:
- 1933 Goudey Ruth
- 1933 Goudey Gehrig
- 1986 Fleer Jordan
- 1979 OPC Gretzky
- 1952 Topps Mantle
A loupe can also come in handy for more modern cards like the ’86 Fleer Jordan. A standard loupe can detect jagged lines, blotchy print patterns, and incorrect font, often found in fakes.
One of the most common pieces of advice doled out in the vintage market is to compare a prospective card with the characteristics of an authentic card from the same set.
“You want to buy a raw T206 Wagner but can’t get access to an authentic card to study?” Broome says. “The Honus Wagner card was printed on the same sheets as common T206 cards that are as cheap as $30-40 today. By handling cards from the same set, using the proper tools, and examining the cards, you will become an expert in that set. Learn how those particular cards are made. Study the print under a loupe.”
While not always foolproof, one simple tip is to smell a vintage card. With enough experience, one can recognize a different smell carried among pre-1950 cards.
Just as with vintage cards, comparing modern cards with other cards from the same set is a good first step in determining authenticity. Scammers, however, are evolving.
Nolan has noted that modern card scammers are using laser printers to print certificates of authenticity on the back of cards. They then strip the sticker auto from a common card, wipe it clean, and forge the autograph of a star player.
Double-checking modern cards is as important as ever. This includes:
- Verifying that a card was actually made.
- Checking fonts and colors.
- Looking for authentic duplicates that would make any copies obvious.
“There is not a card, vintage or modern, that is safe from the fakery,” Broome says. “Modern chrome cards, ‘90’s basketball inserts, I’ve even seen a card with a book value of $10 that was counterfeit.
“The alterations are another world altogether. My all-time favorite was an older counterfeit card that had been altered at some point. Fake and altered.”
Counterfeit slabs are fairly rare but there have been sophisticated efforts made to try and duplicate the plastic holders, especially those used by PSA. Nolan, who has attended more than 100 card shows in the past two years, estimates that he encountered fake slabs in about 25% of the shows he attended. He recommends that any collector double-check the certification number as a first step. But beyond that, he has other precautions one can take before finalizing a deal:
- Check the texture on a slab. Compare it with an unquestionably real holder. The texture on fake slabs is different from authentic ones.
- Press the slab a bit. Fake slabs tend to creak.
- Sometimes, a fingernail under the slab edges can pry it open.
- Often, the dots or marks around the slab don’t match the label generation
Some other things to look for in PSA slabs are:
- Post-2017 PSA slabs have a “Lighthouse Effect” that makes holograms glow when rotated.
- Fake pre-2017 slabs often have poorly-fit and loose labels.
- Look for “frosting” on the edges that appear as if the label was in a freezer. This is an indication that the slab was cracked open at some point.
- Make sure you can see through the labels when using a light.
While the overwhelming majority of slabbed cards are authentic, it’s also important to inspect the cards. If a slab’s characteristics give you second thoughts, dig further into the card.
Counterfeit Beckett slabs are also known to be in circulation. There are several ways to spot a fake Beckett slab. However, a tell-tale sign of counterfeit Beckett slabs is that they are missing a period after the “PAT” at the bottom of each slab, signifying the patent number. An authentic slab will include a period and have “PAT.” inscribed on the plastic, followed by the number.
Since publishing his book a year ago, Nolan has noticed an increase in scammers looking to recreate chrome and Prizm cards. At the moment, Nolan thinks the counterfeit products are relatively easy to spot since they are noticeably different from authentic cards. That could change in the not-too-distant future.
“The copies on the market often look completely different,” Ryan says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if their technology develops over the next few years.”
As VP at CSG Broome says, the grading service encounters fake cards daily.
“We consistently make sure our graders, experts in their field, receive continuous education,” Broome says. “Additionally, we have continuing education courses that focus on areas such as counterfeit detection. When necessary, we also use technology in our grading processes such as video and light comparison, forensics machinery, and even X-ray spectrometry.”
Buying from Reputable Sellers
One of the major advantages of networking in the card industry is getting to know reputable sellers. By buying from established, knowledgeable sellers with good reputations, a collector can have greater peace of mind.
Nolan, who specializes in pre-war and other vintage cards, notes the importance of his role as a seller to his followers on social media.
“It’s super important to buy from a trusted seller, especially if you don’t know how to spot counterfeits,” he says. “Great vintage dealers will weed out fakes and inform you if a card has been altered. As a dealer, you should be responsible for the authenticity of a card.”