Among the services third party grading companies provide to collectors are the free population reports maintained by each entity.
A population report is essentially an accounting of the cards the companies have graded. It allows you to see how many, say, T205 Cy Young cards one of them has graded. Even beyond that, pop reports also detail how many cards in a particular condition they have graded.
It’s some pretty valuable information. In particular, collectors can compare all of the cards in a specific set and find out which ones have been graded the most or which cards have been more difficult to find in a given condition. And while they can’t tell us precisely how many cards in a set were printed, they can help us to compare relative production runs across different sets.
In short, population reports can be very helpful. But collectors should know that they’re not perfect for a few reasons.
Large Numbers of Ungraded Cards
One of the biggest problems with population reports is that they only account for graded cards. As stated, that is one reason they cannot be relied upon for establishing the total population of a particular card or set.
While many cards are graded, the reality is that most are not. And because of that, with the exception of a few ultra rare issues, they don’t offer the whole story to anyone trying to determine overall populations.
Cracked and Regraded Cards
While most collectors keep a card in its sealed case after grading, that is not always the case. Some collectors prefer to keep cards in binders and, when buying a graded card, will sometimes crack it open to remove it for easier storage.
Personally, I collect mostly lower-grade cards and while I prefer to buy most of them raw, I will buy graded cards if the price is right. But I often crack those cards from cases and have opened somewhere around 200 cards from them. Other collectors have opened many more than that.
And unless the grading company is notified when that occurs and they happen to remove it from their database, their population report becomes inaccurate.
Similarly causing a problem is when a collector sends a graded card to a different grading company to be assessed by them. Thus, if a card is graded by PSA and then resubmitted to SGC, the same card would show up in both population reports (assuming, of course, that SGC does not notify PSA). Those scenarios make the report data less reliable.
Focus on Big Names
Many collectors use pop reports to try to determine the rarity of specific cards in a set. However, that isn’t always easy to do.
The reason is because the bigger name players are generally the ones that collectors will grade the most. Those cards are usually worth more so it makes sense why that would occur. When viewing a pop report, that has to be taken into consideration.
Case in point: PSA has examined more than 600 T205 Ty Cobb cards. Other commons in the set, though, have been graded far less. That doesn’t mean that Cobb’s cards are more plentiful than others. It merely means more have been graded than others. So it’s not always all that accurate of a tool for determining rarity among different cards.
Now, pop reports can be used to compare similar cards. Comparing commons against commons or stars against stars can provide a better look into the rarity of specific cards. But even that isn’t always perfect as some commons or stars feature more popular players than others.
Less Popular/Valuable Issues
Some cards like old baseball tobacco and caramel issues are graded quite frequently. For example, eBay has dozens of current listings for graded 1914 Cracker Jack cards. But other issues are graded less often. That is usually the case for less popular or less valuable cards.
A good example can be seen when comparing older pre-war and vintage cards to newer sets. For example, take that ~240,000 number I mentioned earlier for PSA-graded T206 cards and match it up with, say, 1980 Topps. So far, PSA has graded about 100,000 of those.
Just looking at those two numbers, a non-collector would be inclined to think that the 1980 Topps cards are rarer. Of course, that isn’t the case. They have simply been graded less because they aren’t as valuable. A low-grade T206 common will cost around $15-$20 whereas a low-grade 1980 Topps common is worth only a few cents. There’s simply not much reason to grade those sorts of cards.
I’m a big user of pop reports, looking at them for various bits of research on almost a daily basis. I can safely say they are very useful. But it’s also important to understand their limitations.