The Highs and Lows of Getting your Cards Graded: Part 1

We get a question quite often that goes like this: 

Customer: We would like to sell this Michael Jordan card for $500!
Us: Well the book value is $15
Customer: We saw it listed on eBay for $500
Us: Show me
Customer: it’s listed right here, they just call it a PSA 10!

This happens all the time, often enough we decided to write about it.

In the early 1990’s a company was formed called Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA). The concept was to professionally grade sports cards on a 10 to 1 scale, 10 being the highest. I think the concept was taken from the coin industry, and it helped solve a lot of problems. You see, prior to this concept of a 3rd party objectively grading cards, the beauty was in the eye of the beholder. And before PSA the beholder was the card dealer, who of course offered nothing but praise to the cards they wanted to sell you.  Since this was before the Internet, myths would then always circulate, some true and some not so true.  I would hear things like, the Nolan Ryan Rookie card is notoriously off center, so my version of the card is MINT! Or, do not be concerned, my Michael Jordan rookie card is legit and of course it is not counterfeit!  

PSA created a whole new balance to the sports card equilibrium.

Centering, edges, corners and surface are the 4 key indicators to each card. PSA has this multi-step process to evaluate four conditions with each card they grade before encapsulating the card in an “unbreakable” holder. Otherwise known as “slabbing,” cards can now be bought and sold with complete confidence, like the saying goes, “sight unseen.” The new equilibrium of supply and demand had a new universe, called the population report. The ingenious early move for PSA was to not only slab and grade the card but also assign the card a unique number, creating this new universe, they call, population report. Now the serious collector can park their retirement funds into PSA 10 rookie cards or better yet build their favorite childhood set with only PSA graded cards! Now, that Nolan Ryan centering issue rookie card can be tracked with actual data, no more anecdotal dealer fables.  

Sometimes PSA will not slab the card for reasons like tampering, counterfeiting or trimming. So that black sharpie you took to a 1971 Topps Thurman Munson 2nd year card would be detected and rejected, sent back. Oh and that Michael Jordan counterfeit rookie card? Yeah that too will be detected and will be rejected worthless!

My first experience with PSA was in 1998. Like many, I took some time off from the hobby in the mid-‘90s and actually focused on college. I got the PSA concept right away—add eBay to the mix (and BAM!)—and this is better than day trading shares of WorldCom! So looking to become rich, I put together a stack of 10 cards, the ones from my collection I thought were absolutely perfect. I’m talking about my perfect 1979 Topps Ozzie Smith rookie, that 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan rookie and all the rest. I carefully followed the directions using semi-rigid holders and a plan box. (Btw, God forbid using top holders and bubble mailers! And Similar to the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, you better write on the box the exact handling time, or you’re going to the back of the line!) Now to be honest, I only remember submitting the Ozzie and the Ryan cards. Like Costco, you need a membership. But don’t worry, for $150 a year I think you received 10 “freebie” submissions. So I played by the rules and mailed my ten cards off for the 20-business day turnaround service. Then I waited. And waited…and waited, and waited.

One day the package came in certified mail, wrapped in tight, in that old fashioned box tape. Now even back in 1998 a PSA 9 Nolan Ryan rookie was a small fortune, I believe about $5k in value. I wasn’t naïve to think I would actually get a 10, but the thought did cross my mind! So as I looked through each card, I remember saying this really, really…. sucks! All of my grades were disappointing, and that Ryan card ended up being a PSA 8! PSA was no joke, they really analyzed each card with a fine tooth comb! But I did need the cash, and sold that Ryan for $900! Recently, I saw my actual card sell for $5k! I guess after all, that card did go for $5k…just took almost 20 years to get there!

Stay tuned for Part 2…


Written by Damon Hudson, Owner