Graded cards are here to stay–and competition is fierce between those who crave them–and those who sell them.
Those who have spent a couple of decades earning the title of sports collector remember a tiime when you could walk into a card show and buy a T206 for a buck. Maybe not one in mint condition–or even close–but a respectable card of a recognizable player.
Ungraded T206 cards still exist, but now even lesser condition examples usually wind up in the holder of a sports card grading company. One reason is that the cards are a little flimsy and the plastic holders offer some better protection But more often than not, the cards are slabbed because they sell for more money. Collectors want the authenticity and a third party’s opinion. Collectors with bigger slices of discretionary income want them in plastic so they can build graded sets.
Grading has created a lucrative market for dealers of vintage cards. Records continue to be shattered for highly graded Hall of Famers from popular sets.
The PSA Set Registry and SGC’s newly launched version are where the real action is happening in the vintage card market. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a century-old card.
”It’s quite literally the most important thing in our market. It was a brilliant move by PSA," Brian Drent, president of Mile High Card Company said at a recent panel discussion of the vintage and graded card market. "It’s really propelled a lot of competition between collectors."
Competition is what often drives prices. Why else would someone pay hundreds–sometimes thousands of dollars for mint condition commons from the 1960s? The registries are home to serious collectors, many with seriously large bank accounts who tackle the often herculean task of completing 528, 660 or 796-card complete sets in graded form.
Market prices are driven by the population reports. Vintage cards hitting the market on eBay or in a major auction with populations of less than five can create bidding frenzies for collectors desperate to cross another rare common off of their list. Often, a rare common find in a 9 or 10 grade can sell for many times that of a Hall of Famer card that rarely has negative traits from the printing process.
Changes in the population reports often mean a drop in selling prices. When the pop goes up, the cards become more affordable. Welcome to life in the fast lane.
“It has everything to do with price," Mastro Auctions president Doug Allen said of the set registries. Allen told the story of a person who walked into the company’s suburban Chicago office with a large high grade collection of 1952 Bowmans. Mastro staffers pulled out some of the best quality cards to submit to PSA while unintentionally affecting the market for one such card.
"We had a 1952 Bowman Casey Stengel which was a low pop card and we got a ‘9’ on it. It went for thousands of dollars in our auction," Allen recalled. The buyer called Mastro shortly after the auction after buying the card as a 1 of 3 and then seeing the pop report inexplicably shoot up as Mastro graded the remainder of the Stengel cards in the Bowman lot.
"We wound up with 43 Casey Stengels in a nine grade," Allen said. "You can almost kill the market if all of a sudden you have a bunch of cards that were low pop and now aren’t. We discovered that it might be best in the future to submit a few at a time."
The concept can also impact how heavily certain cards are promoted in the card dealers’ auction catalogs.
“The Set Registry is a big deal," said Andy Madec. "There are 25 or 30 thousand sets there. It’s definitely a factor in how we put together auction lots.”
The dealers admit they choose a grading company based on the age of a card.
“SGC has a good following for pre-War material so they may be at the forefront of our thought process there but with the Set Registry 1950s and 60s material probably works better with PSA,” Drent explained. Not all agreed with that. Madec sticks with PSA.
“I think in terms of doing the best for my clients, helping them maximize value and helping them make an investment-conscious decision, I’m going to push them toward PSA."
Beckett Grading Services has entered the vintage market in a big way this spring after an Atlanta man shipped a collection of T206s to the company for grading. The highly publicized cards, including a Wagner were consigned to Robert Edward Auctions.
Global Authentication remains an industry player, with long-time grader Mike Baker still at the helm of its process.
PSA’s recent move to offering half grades instead of its long-time ten point scale could create even more competition on the company’s registry, not to mention a huge increase in submissions from the loyal collectors who want to stay in the hunt for "all time finest set".
“If your set is all PSA 8 and so is the one your buddy has, he can now get his re-graded and jump ahead of you,” Allen said.
Most company reps say the move will create more business for PSA.
“I’m certain it was done to encourage more submissions," Madec stated. He applauded the concept, while saying it should have been done years before. What the actual selling price difference will be between a PSA 8 and 8.5 is yet to be determined.
"I sold several this weekend for significant premiums over the whole grade but I think we’re still trying to determine exactly what the value of the half grade is.”
Drent said his company just received an 8.5 grade on a T205 Cy Young card. Thanks to the half grade format, it’s now the highest graded card of it’s kind. No 9’s exist on the population report with four 8s listed and its likely the card will eventually sell for a record price because of intense competition on the registry.
Some collectors who feel the grading companies have become less generous with their highest grades in recent years and that the half-grade move may increase that fear.
"“I think the biggest fear in the market is that it will give them an excuse not to give a nine," Allen said. "People have some trepidation about that.”
The dealers generally believe the market for complete sets is solid at the moment and piecing together graded sets of even mildly popular vintage cards can be a wise move.
"We got $30,000 for a 1959 Topps football set in our last auction, basically graded all 8’s with a couple of 9’s," Drent related. "Eight years ago I was buying ’59 football sets for $300 and threw them on the back shelf because they couldn’t sell."
In the spring of 2007, Madec sold what might be the ultimate graded 1960 Topps set for $124,609. During the PCCE in Chicago, Mastro Auctions gladly accepted one of the top five 1974 Topps graded sets in existence and will place it in an upcoming auction.
Submitting a ‘raw’ set to an auction company or dealer doesn’t mean the cards will stay in raw form.
“If you get a raw collection you’re really doing your client a disservice if you don’t maximize the value by getting the cards graded by a respectable grading service,” Allen said.
Deciding which service is right for that particular set becomes the next decision as companies such as Drent’s Mile High seek to maximize revenue for themselves and their consignors.
“Cracker Jacks might be hot in one holder versus another so your decision might vary depending on the year or what cycle you’re in. “We’re trying to maximize the return for a client.”