BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — Even if you aren’t familiar with the industry, you might know that not all cards are created equal. Differences between card rarities already make some trading or collectible cards more valuable than others. When looking at a card, there are several different aspects that contribute to its price — particularly its rarity, use (in terms of Trading Card Games), and availability. But for those who are seeking the pinnacle of trading cards, there is another process that can be used to evaluate which are the perfect picks of the pack — card grading.

Card grading is a professional way to evaluate the value and condition of a trading card — and it’s an industry that is so important to sellers that companies have appeared for the sole purpose of ensuring their cards are in the best possible position so they can be sold at a higher value. The four major aspects cards are graded on, according to Beckett Grading Services, are as follows:

  • Centering: This score focuses on the width of the border around the card, making sure that all border sizes around it are equal. In many cards, this often focuses on whether or not the image is perfectly centered to fit in these borders.
  • Corners: This is believed to be the most important aspect of a grade card, and corners can often be the deciding factor in a score even if other aspects are lacking. Corners are ideally sharp and without any visible discoloration.
  • Edges: This focuses on the four edges of a card — primarily ensuring that they are sharp and do not possess any discolorings, marks, or other dents.
  • Surface: This term applies to the condition of the card’s face. With cards that feature autographs or other sorts of holographic material, there can be concerns regarding scratches, fading, or parts of the foil coming off over time. Creases, ink smearing, stamp marks, and moisture damage are also taken into consideration.

After grading experts look at these different aspects of a card, they assign it a grade between 1 and 10 — the higher the number, the better quality the card is, with a 9 or higher representing ‘Gem Mint’ condition. While it would seem to many that the one or two points would not matter much in the grand scheme of things, these can often be the deciding factors between a card fetching a moderate price and a massive one. A 1st Edition copy of Yu-Gi-Oh’s iconic Blue-Eyes White Dragon from the games’ first booster pack with a grade of 9 is worth $3,764 — but the same card graded 9.5 is worth $21,111, and a score of 10 is even costlier at over $29,000. These prices, while a good example of the score’s impact in action, have very little on some of the numbers we see in sports card sales. In 2007, a PSA Grade 9 copy of the famous ’52 Mickey Mantle Rookie Card sold for $282,587 — but last year, a copy graded 9.5 sold for over $12 million. If that wasn’t pricey enough, there are talks of a Grade 10 copy of The Mick floating around that could fetch a minimum of $35 million.

At The Sports Cave in Bismarck, Chris Magstadt specializes in these sorts of graded cards, and notes that the grading process is one that can point out which cards are in peak condition, and thus, will fetch peak prices from collectors.

“It’s trying to find that card, trying to find that specific player, and trying to find it in a high grade,” Magstadt says. “That’s what the big draw to grading is — there’s another step besides buying a box and cracking packs.”

Not every card fresh out of the pack is a perfect 10, though, and an example of this idea stems from Tyler, The Great Warrior — a one-of-a-kind Yu-Gi-Oh card that, after printing, was immediately placed into a hard case and left undisturbed for over 15 years. Yet, when the card was graded, it received a score of only 8. Magstadt says that this is because the average grading scale on a card is only around 8 when printed — and that finding a perfect Gem Mint edition of these limited-edition items, much less one with actual value, is extremely rare, especially in the case of older cards.

“If you’re looking at a card which only has 99 copies in existence,” explains Magstadt, “you know that there have only been that many of those cards made, and you know that industry standard is near-mint. When you factor in that only about five to ten percent of fresh, new cards are considered to be in Gem Mint condition, it makes these perfect cards even more valuable because there could only be a few others like it.”

When it comes to these different values, regardless of the rarity or age of the card, each is graded mostly alike — old finds from the 1970s are held to the same standard as a brand-new card from a 2023 booster pack. Incidentally, this is exactly what makes older high-grade cards so valuable. A perfect rare card in pristine condition decades after its release is an impressive sight, and this is a major reason why old cards sell for so much in perfect condition.

“It’s supply and demand when it comes down to that,” Magstead continues. “When you talk about population reports on a graded card, once the population gets up to a certain amount, then there’s more supply than there is demand. You want something that is a very high grade, but still very limited.”

This same idea of grading is involved in cards that feature extra aspects as well, including uniform pieces or autographs. Autographs that come with these cards are often given seals of approval on the back, but for signatures given naturally at games or meetups, more testing (including DNA tests and penmanship matching) is often required to verify their authenticity.

The back of a Panini card featuring a piece of material once worn by Kobe Bryant, complete with a guarantee of authenticity at the bottom.

While grading cards can be a good way to identify which valuable cards are in the best condition, it’s important to remember that not every card is in need of grading. In order to ensure that the grading process can be streamlined, many suggest looking up the values of cards that may be worthy of going through the process before sending them into an office.

Sports Specification

Although card grading does apply to both TCG Cards and Collectible Cards, it is most commonly used in regard to sports cards — primarily because of their tendency to feature more numbered cards than other games. These numbers correspond to the number of copies of the card currently in existence — and when these numbers are low, the price for the cards is high. While some brands of trading cards do occasionally dabble into numbered cards (with Magic: the Gathering’s Serialized Praetors being the latest example), this idea is much more popular in the Sports Card industry, which frequently releases both legends and rookies in limited runs. These cards are harder to come by, and thus, tend to cost more on average.

Thanks to this principle and the grading process not judging by age, some of these limited-run sports cards that feature the early years of sports icons (including the famous rookie cards of Pele, Patrick Mahones, and The Mick) will no doubt fetch high prices when compared to others. Even in cases where the card itself may not receive the highest grade or be in a limited number, the simple fact that the card portrays a notable athlete is sometimes enough to propel it to value. At The Sports Cave, even a 7 or 8-graded Lebron James can be much more valuable than a 9.0 or one-of-a-kind card of another lesser-known athlete.

In addition to these factors, without a playable game attached to Sports cards, collecting them in the best possible condition becomes more important. Compared to Pokemon and Sports Cards — which are primarily coveted by collectors rather than players — Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh players tend to value function over form in their cards, and would generally rather have playable versions than displayable ones, thus at times leading to a decline in high-graded cards as rare and valuable ones see frequent wear caused from play. This idea is even reflected in exclusive collectibles, where the most valuable Yu-Gi-Oh and MTG cards do not hold a candle to the prices that some sports cards hold on the market.

The fact that sports cards feature real people as opposed to fictional creatures can also affect shifting prices, especially for new arrivals — where an up-and-coming or beloved athlete’s career, achievements, or misbehavior can have a direct impact on the value of their memorabilia.

“What separates a valuable Pokemon card from a valuable sports card is that Charizard isn’t going to pull a muscle,” says Magstadt. “Charizard isn’t going to set a touchdown record. Charizard doesn’t have an active career with wins and losses, and as such, the price of a fictional character’s card often ends up more stable than the price of a real person’s. If one of these rookies blows out his knee and is forced to retire, you can bet that the card will see a price drop.”

Grading Gripes

While card grading can be a great way to see the value of your collection, as Magstadt states, there are a few problems with the industry that can lead to problems and reduced returns for those looking to sell. The largest of these is that, at the end of the day, a majority of grades — including those from the most trusted grading organizations — are based on subjective opinion, and a 9 to some could be an 8 or a 7 to others.

“If you look at a card with borders, for example,” explains Magstadt, “you can see that they might be thicker on one side than another, or the image may not be centered enough. Sometimes you don’t have a border for the image, so it does come down to subjective opinion.”

The aspect of these grades that concerns many the most is that some grading companies do not actually display the reasonings behind them. While groups like Beckett do list the individual scores for each graded aspect of the card, many do not — which can lead to confusion over what aspect is responsible for lowering its grade and, therefore, overall value.

A Panini Prizm graded Rookie Card of Zion Williamson. Note the individual scores for the Centering, Edges, Corners, and Surface. An Autograph score is also visible on the card, cementing it as a genuine signature from Williamson.

On top of this, grading companies that are well-respected and whose approval will fetch the highest price do not come to stores or homes to appraise cards, meaning that a complete inspection often requires cards to be sent through the postal service multiple times (hopefully not incurring any damages along the way) or taken to national card shows and offices. Depending on how backed up the companies are, this can usually mean the grading process is a long and expensive one, even for a single card or two. While some smaller graders can do gradings at home or at conventions, Magstadt advises against this — as these smaller gradings may not be as guaranteed as a larger group’s seal of approval, and in part because a card’s value can also be inferred by the credibility and name of the grader attached to it.

“Just look at the value of your cards,” Magstat urges. “Let’s take the 2018 Panini Prizm Base card of Luka Doncic for example. “A PSA-graded card with a score of 10 sells for $240-$250 today. A Beckett-graded 9.5 sells for about $180-$200. If you want to take it further, an SGC-graded 10 sold in May for $150. That’s a difference that you’re losing out of your pocket by using a different grading company. I always tell people, it’s worth waiting to maximize your profits.”

Although there are many issues with card grading, many see it as a great way to get unique cards from the history of their favorite sports or games priced — if not only for the value it can bring to them, but to further immortalize these paper pieces of history. The next time you’re digging in storage, take a look for that old box of cards you have stowed somewhere — you may be able to find some hidden gems worth grading.

What are your thoughts on card grading? Do you have any valuable cards you’d love to have graded? Be sure to let us know on our Facebook pages!