A card grader is a firm that receives cards from collectors only for them to be sent back encased in a “slab”--a transparent plastic container--labeled at the top with a grade from 1-10. A card with a high grade imputes a higher value; only the most pristinely printed and maintained cards are given a 10, the most highly sought after grade.
Card Graders have become an essential piece of the hobby’s infrastructure. A decent analogue for graders in card collecting would be to credit rating agencies in financial markets. The card graders are analyzing the quality of the card itself so as to help investors accurately decide on a value; while Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s analyze the quality of the organization, with respect to credit-worthiness, so as to help collectors accurately decide on a value.
Going clockwise from the top-left:
There are four grading firms that make up nearly all graded cards. They are as follows:
Founded in 1991, PSA is the de facto king of card grading. They grade far more cards than the rest combined and their red and white label has become a powerful icon within the collecting community.
Beckett Media was founded in 1984 covering the hobby with magazines and price guides. In 2001 they began grading cards themselves. Beckett uses a similar 10 point scale to PSA, but they also have additional 'subgrades'. These include: Centering, Corners, Edges, and Surface. These four subgrades are also used by the following two graders.
SGC has been grading and authenticating cards since 1998. They are among the most reputable names in card grading. Although Beckett and SGC do not grade nearly as many cards as PSA, they are still well-respected brands in the space.
CSG is by far the most recent entrant into the sports card grading space. In 2021 'The Collectibles Group' added sports cards to their list grading offerings. The company has previously graded everything from coins to video games. Currently the smallest player in the space, it is still yet to be seen if CSG will be a mainstay in the hobby like the above mentioned services.
The simplest way to understand how a grader determines a final score is by breaking down the scoring rubric. The four following sub-grades are used to analyze the overall quality of the card:
Arguably the most important factor in determining the grade. If a card is perfectly centered it can buoy the overall grade when compared to underperformance in the remaining categories. Ideally, a card is centered ‘50/50’ or in the exact center of the card; the above Ken Griffey card received a 'GEM-MT 10' which implies at worst a 60/40 centering on the front of the card.
Corners are one of the easiest aspects to notice when grading a card. Is it beat up from regular handling of the card? Has it been bent or dented while placing the card into a sleeve? The above Trevor Lawrence card has crisp, 90° angled corners. You can see that the card’s corners have not been damaged or misshapen in any way–allowing it to receive a 10.
Edges can be damaged in many ways, including: taking the card out of the pack improperly, dropping the card, and/or the card being used as a tasty snack; sometimes by a dog, sometimes by a precocious collector who enjoys the sweet taste of cardboard. Any of this damage will reduce the chance for a high grade. Our Steve Garvey example above would likely have fetched a higher grade if not for the beat-up, frayed edges.
Deductions can be made by any noticeable defect on the surface of the card. Wrinkles, scratches, and discolorations caused by the initial printing of the card or otherwise will lower the grade of a card. Our Micheal Jordan example has quite a few noticeable dings and scratches on the top half of the card; each of these hurts the overall grade.
Each Grading firm has slightly varying methodologies on how they come to each grade. These methodologies do have significant overlap that simplifies the comparison between firms. All of these four major firms use scales from 1-10. Each number grade has a 'Quality' code attached to it.
Each grade means something slightly different. For example PSA describes their highest grade as the following:
"A PSA Gem Mint 10 card is a virtually perfect card. Attributes include four perfectly sharp corners, sharp focus and full original gloss. A PSA Gem Mint 10 card must be free of staining of any kind, but an allowance may be made for a slight printing imperfection, if it doesn't impair the overall appeal of the card. The image must be centered on the card within a tolerance not to exceed approximately 55/45 to 60/40 percent on the front, and 75/25 percent on the reverse."
And their lowest grade PSA doles out, save for altered cards reads:
A PSA Poor 1 will exhibit many of the same qualities of a PSA Fair 1.5 but the defects may have advanced to such a serious stage that the eye appeal of the card has nearly vanished in its entirety. A Poor card may be missing one or two small pieces, exhibit major creasing that nearly breaks through all the layers of cardboard or it may contain extreme discoloration or dirtiness throughout that may make it difficult to identify the issue or content of the card on either the front or back. A card of this nature may also show noticeable warping or another type of destructive effect.
All graders use “half-grades” between 9 and 2 in order to give a more accurate grade to each card. In these situations the quality tag will be given a ‘+’. For example: 5.5 would be EX+ and a 3.5 would be a VG+. These cards will have features that would land it at the high end of the lower grade, but not enough to push it up to the next level.
There are a few differences in the syntax of each grading firm. BGS' highest grade is also a 10, but 'PRI' meaning Pristine while their 'GEM-MT' is only a measly 9.5.
SGC separates their 10 into two–’Pristine’ and ‘Gem Mint’. Here, ‘Pristine’ is the top dog. Only cards described as “virtually flawless” will receive such a grade. Their Gem Mint allows for “a slight print spot”, but only if it does not detract from the rest of the card.
CSG also has two 10 grades, but they are 'Perfect' and 'Gem Mint'. Perfect being a card that has received a 10 in all subgrades and be "flawless under 10x magnification."
The quality abbreviations are quite simple to translate, but here is the full list:
There can be differences in values between the same grade from different firms. PSA is the dominant name in the space, which is reflected in the value of their graded cards. If a card is in a PSA slab it has been stamped with the seal of approval from the most powerful name in grading–this can imply a premium when compared to similar grades from competing firms. Although, depending on the card, deciding which grader to use can be a strategic decision. If you believe you are holding onto a card that could fetch a perfect ten then it may be worthwhile to use BGS as it will display a 10 across each category. Since PSA does not list individual category grades on their label, the same card would likely be valued at a discount to a so-called quad ten grade.
For the most part you cannot go wrong by choosing PSA. Although you will see below that PSA understands their stature in the space and has set their prices accordingly.
The following are current prices and are subject to change:
You can get into the nitty gritty details of each individual population report from each grader, but here is a good overview below for last year.
PSA is by far the leader in total number of cards graded and they have been for some time. More than 78% of all graded cards in 2022 were graded by PSA. The remaining 22% is split up between the remaining three.
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