Cataloged as N172 by Jefferson Burdick in his American Card catalog, the 1886-90 Old Judge issue is a massive issue. While several hundred cards are known, there are thousands of unique cards counting all of the variations. By PSA’s count, more than 4,500 different cards exist.
As one of the earliest sets of baseball cards, the Old Judge issue has always drawn collectors, even without any realistic hopes of ever coming close to completing the set. But while the cards are unique and desirable, collecting it isn’t necessarily easy.
Here are some of the pitfalls to collecting this rare set.
Price is always a factor, right? Well, that’s true – particularly of pre-war issues. But collectors wanting to add some of these to their collection should know that this isn’t really like buying more plentiful issues, such as T206. While you can find low-grade T206 cards for as little as $15, low-grade Old Judge cards will usually start around $75-$100. Finding them below that is a pretty good bargain, regardless of condition.
And as is the case with anything, if you want something a little nicer, you’ll pay for it. Of course, Hall of Famers and stars are also considerably more, starting around $400-$500 for those in low-grade. Price depends on the condition of the card and an added factor, clarity of the picture – something we’ll get to in a bit. But in a nutshell, these aren’t super affordable cards. There are certainly more expensive issues but at about $100 a pop, you’ll have to spend a good bit of money if you want more than a few.
You might look at PSA’s pop report and, seeing more than 4,000 cards graded, come to the conclusion that, for something so old, there are a decent amount of them compared to rarer issues.
It’s true … kind of. Finding any Old Judge card really isn’t that hard to do. eBay generally has a few hundred for sale at any given time. If you’re looking for any random, run-of-the-mill Old Judge card, it’s very easy to find one online. However, looking for specific players is the difficult part.
Some players, such as Hall of Famers, are a little easier to find since they typically are available for sale more often. But finding obscure players or commons to fill team sets is a difficult task. How tough? Well, remember that PSA population report? Almost all of the cards listed have only a few that have been graded. Many just show a single copy. Nailing down specific players isn’t the easiest thing to do.
By far, the biggest condition issue associated with the Old Judge cards (as well as with other issues using real sepia-toned photographs mounted onto cards) is fading.
These pictures are well over 125 years old and have been exposed to all kinds of light during that time. That light, unfortunately, has done a lot of damage. Some cards, in fact, are barely recognizable because of extreme fading.
That has made finding quality cards even more difficult. Collectors should be aware that cards with faded pictures are significantly less valuable. Even cards with high technical grades see a much lower return if the picture is not clear. The flip side is that even heavily damaged cards are desirable if they have clear pictures. It’s a complex issue that makes buying and selling these cards even tougher.
Rebacking is another common condition problem known in this release. Rebacked cards are cards that have had the original backs removed and then have had new backs attached to them.
One example of why cards are rebacked are cards that have been glued into scrapbooks. When removed, the backs of those cards often aren’t great to look at. So collectors have been known to remove the old back and attach a new back to the card.
This is common with Old Judge cards because they are original photographs that were affixed to cardboard backings anyway. For that reason, it can be difficult to determine if a card has been rebacked. That is important because rebacked cards are considered altered and not as valuable.