Beware “graded value” baseball cards on Ebay

There are a few hucksters on Ebay, whom I don’t care to give free advertising by mentioning by name, who hawk “graded” cards on Ebay and claim them to be especially valuable. One even puts supposed appraised values in his listings in parenthesis, then invites you to visit his page for an explanation of “graded” value, where he cites an example of a run-of-the-mill 1970s star card, normally worth $60, being worth $2,500 once graded.

The thing is, that’s an edge case, and it’s important to understand those edge cases to avoid getting ripped off.

Most baseball cards have minor imperfections. A card that looks perfect at first glance may be slightly off center, or have slight corner or edge damage when closely examined. The closer to perfect a card is, the less wiggle room there is on condition. And each minor flaw halves the value of the card. Or, if there truly aren’t many exceptional examples of a given card due to the quirks of a given set, those minor flaws might affect the value even more dramatically.

The typical hobbyist or strip-mall card shop owner may not be able to adequately discern between a card that’s a 7 or a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, or at the very least, a high-end hobbyist who’s willing to pay thousands of dollars for a card won’t trust just anyone to decide that difference. That’s fair, because there are plenty of people who can’t tell the difference between a 4 or a 5 and a 10, if only because there’s less difference between a 4 and a 10 than there is between a 3 and a 4.

That’s how a $60 card becomes a $2,500 card when graded. If the card truly deserves a grade of 9 or 10 and gets certified as such by a legitimate card grading service like PSASGC, or BVG, and if cards in that condition are exceptionally rare–and one of the things those services will tell you is how many other examples of that card they’ve graded in those high conditions–then, in effect, the card does become more valuable by being professionally graded and encapsulated in a slab of plastic. You know that a professional assessed the card and determined it is, in fact, genuine and unaltered and graded the card according to a recognized professional standard.

But that’s a lot of ands. There’s a reason why the root of the word “exceptional” is “exception.” When you search SGC’s population report for rookie cards of Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Ryne Sandberg, you find fewer than 1% of their cards merit SGC’s equivalent of 10 Gem Mint. And that’s in the case of 1983, when cards were produced in large quantities and people were starting to catch on to the idea of baseball cards being valuable. Step up to 1987, and Barry Bonds, when cards were being overproduced, quality control was better, people were actively removing cards from packs and putting them straight into top loaders, and everyone knew Bonds was going to be the superstar of his generation, and the rate balloons–all the way to a lousy six percent. Six percent of the best of the best rate that grade. Only 1.5% of Mark McGwire’s cards grade out similarly. Prior to the 1980s, exceptionally high-graded cards become even more rare. Only .1% of George Brett’s 1975 rookie card reach that level.

Parenthesis Guy’s pictures aren’t exceptionally clear, and you can’t zoom in on them. It’s easy to see they’re nice cards, but usually I can spot something in the picture that tells me the card isn’t a 10, because it’s off-center or something like that. But his unwillingness to let me see the back of the card or zoom in on it for a closer look tells me he’s hiding something. On his listings where you can see the grading company–and some of his pictures are so fuzzy you can’t even see that–you can see it’s GMA Grading, a low-tier service who grades cards for $2.50 apiece, and optionally offers a service to sell you holders and labels so you can grade cards yourself for $1 apiece–they provide the holders and labels and you provide the equipment.

Owning an air compressor, an ultrasonic welder, and an equal number of baseball cards and dollar bills doesn’t make one a professional grader, but that’s part of Parenthesis Guy’s business model. And as long as you don’t put GMA Grading’s logo on it, it’s OK. If you look at Parenthesis Guy’s listings, the lower-grade cards have GMA’s logo on them, and his 10s all have another logo.

When it comes to the top-tier grading services, sometimes grading the card with one of them makes it somewhat less valuable. If I think a card is a 5 but PSA says it’s a 4, I can’t go and sell it for the value of a 5. At best, it’s worth the value of a 4, plus $10 or so for the professional assessment of its legitimacy and grade.

I have a coworker who buys ungraded borderline cards on Ebay and then gets them graded by PSA in hopes of the card rating a grade or two higher than it looks online. He’s good enough that he hasn’t lost money, but he readily admits it’s a low-margin business. He might be able to make more money if he used GMA’s self-grading service, but he’s an honest man.

So while there’s an element of truth to Parenthesis Guy’s argument that some cards deserve a value higher than the highest value you see in price guides, there are precious few of those cards. He has 89 of them listed at the moment–but not one of them was graded by PSA or SGC. There’s a reason for that. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of baseball cards would value his cards at that highest value in the book, at best, plus $2 for the plastic holder it’s in.

But if you want to know what cards graded by a reputable service really are worth, Beckett has its Graded Value Price Guide, now in its 9th edition. It will go a long way toward helping you avoid overpaying on Ebay.

Here’s some honest advice on valuing and selling baseball cards if you’re interested.