Hobby message boards have been buzzing with threads centered around a variety of questionable practices including cards that have been graded, cracked out of their holders and then reappear with fewer defects and higher grades. The image research by forum members to make those connections has resulted in enough glaring examples of both vintage and modern cards to make a lot of folks uncomfortable. It’s also very educational for those who naively believe that card doctoring is a thing of the past.
Veteran collectors know it’s not a new phenomenon, of course. The hobby’s chat archives are full of similar comparisons caught by eagle-eyed collectors over a period of 25 years or more. Online photo and sales result storehouses are far more robust and readily available today, making it a little easier to nail down multiple examples of cards that have been “worked on,” either before or after their original assessment. For current era cards, serial numbers and autographs ensure the before/after comparisons are as airtight as they can be.
As the prices of popular cards continue to rise, the motive becomes stronger and more profitable: to turn a $1,000 card into a $3,000 card or a $7,000 card into a $25,000 card.
It becomes a more complex issue, though, when the question turns to what’s acceptable work to perform on a card and what’s taboo. While the hobby has generally been in agreement on much of this–a big fat no to trimming or adding color for example– other things provoke more disagreements among collectors. Grading companies established their own guidelines years ago. Those sellers who try to create their own standards will get arguments–and probably need to know how the law would respond to selling cards that have undergone a significant makeover of some sort.
The entire issue is also exposing the unfortunate lack of an honor system. Some sellers who know a card’s background story will disclose work that’s been done. In some cases, that history is well-documented (this T206 Honus Wagner is one example). In most cases, though, nothing is ever mentioned—and that’s where our hobby lags far behind other collectible fields where restoration is accepted as long as it’s disclosed. An unsuspecting buyer who spends a lot of money on a card may not be especially pleased if it’s later learned the card had underdone significant renovations, some of which may not be considered acceptable by long-held collecting standards. The ongoing discovery of more high dollar cards that are altered in some way could create a number of legal battles.
Of course, not all sellers will be aware of what may have happened to a specific card, either. In fact, that’s probably the case most of the time. It’s not realistic to expect a seller to research every card to determine if by chance someone, somewhere along the line, had worked on it. It’s also not realistic to expect grading companies to do the same. It is reasonable to expect that sellers stand behind cards that are found to be trimmed and that grading standards are being applied to each card that’s submitted– including proper size, which has been an issue with some current era cards discovered on the Blowout Cards message board.
Does a seller have to stand behind a graded vintage card that’s been found to have been cracked out of a case at one point, cleaned (but not trimmed) and then authenticated again? Will buyers care? As more cards are uncovered, it could be an issue that may come up more often.
It’s safe to say that card doctors who go over the line are getting better, which is a scary thought. Keeping up is a constant battle for grading and authentication companies, who are always fighting to stay ahead of those who try to game the system in one way or another. Detecting cards that have been expertly doctored is a challenge. It’s still a human-driven process and sometimes they miss something but often what’s done to a card isn’t readily apparent and there is no reason not to give a card a grade under established guidelines. That’s typically the goal of a “doctor.”
The more high dollar cards that have been misrepresented, the more likely it is that law enforcement would be involved. In recent years, the hobby has had its share of what are considered mail and/or wire fraud cases, usually involving 1) knowledge of the fraud and 2) shipment through an interstate carrier. There has to be a clearly defined crime that’s been committed, however. Federal agencies don’t get involved unless they’re confident they can get a conviction. Usually the periphery of a larger case gets stripped away in the end. Bill Mastro went to prison based on the shill bidding that went on inside his company. Getting him to admit he trimmed his T206 scrap that became a NM/MT Wagner was part of the case, but not at the heart of it. That doesn’t mean card doctors are safe. Whether actual crimes are now being committed would be up to law enforcement to determine.
Legal questions could also arise if a seller knows one of his consignors is a card doctor and continues to accept material from him and sell it without disclosure. One would think that learning of evidence that the look of a specific card has changed and selling it anyway, with no mention of that fact could be very problematic for a seller.
We’ve always preached the importance of research for collectors and luckily, there are online tools that make it much easier to trace the sales history of cards. For $20 a month, Worthpoint is well worth the investment.
Hopefully, authentication companies are working with sellers to utilize the information that comes to light to identify those suspected of altering cards. It’s obviously in everyone’s best interests to make sure it doesn’t continue.
The collectors who spend time looking online for evidence of things like fake patches and trimmed edges while connecting the dots to those who seem to constantly be involved with such cards are performing a positive service as long as their findings are accurate. If groups of avid, concerned collectors scare off even one habitual trimmer, the hobby is better for it.