Comprehensive Guide to Card Grading

Comprehensive Guide to Card Grading

Comprehensive Guide to Card Grading 1Card Grading Defined

Card grading is the practice of submitting a trading card to a third-party service. The card is inspected for authenticity and ranked, usually on a 10-point scale, for the condition. The card is then assigned an overall grade, sealed in a tamper-proof holder and, finally, assigned a cataloged serial number.

The benefits of card grading include indisputable provenance of authenticity, no subjective condition assignments and an accountability system through an online database. All of these factors combine to, more often than not, increase the value of the card when compared to an ungraded card in equal or similar condition.

The Specifics of Card Grading

Before submitting anything to a card grading company, there are a few things to be aware of to get the most out of your grading submission: knowing what cards to grade, what service to use, and the logistics involved in shipping and insurance.

What to Grade

Choosing what cards to grade is a personal and subjective decision. But there are some guidelines to follow that will not only save you money, but also increase the value of your collection. For example, grading any one-of-one card makes little sense from a financial standpoint, although people continue to do so. The cost of having the card shipped, graded, insured and returned is unlikely to increase the worth of an already highly valued card enough to offset those costs. However, some collectors may like the added protection of a graded slab.

Submitting vintage cards for grading, in particular, makes for a solid investment. Player collectors, team collectors and set builders often target cards in a specific grade. Removing the subjectivity of self-assessment provides a foolproof way of making sure a card is actually in the condition the owner claims.

Even vintage commons can bring a strong return if submitted to a reputable card grading company. A mistake many collectors make with older cards is overlooking these commons. Many high-end set builders will often pay top-dollar for that graded NM or Mint backup utility infielder's card simply to complete their collection of graded cards.

Modern prospect and rookie autographs are also highly desirable in high-grade condition. The obvious reason is that, if that player attains star status, their most popular rookie cards will always be those that are signed and in Mint condition.

Grading Companies

When it comes to choosing what service to use, it is best to do your research. Ask fellow collectors, dealers and your local hobby shop owner who they use and why.

Currently, there are several reputable and established grading companies in the hobby: Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), Beckett Grading Services (BGS) and Sportscard Guaranty (SGC). Each card grading company grades a variety of cards.

Fees between the companies vary so collectors are encouraged to see the pricing policies listed on their respective websites. Collectors can also pay for different levels of service.

In addition to the companies mentioned above, the marketplace has seen several other grading companies come and go over the years. Plenty of their cards still exist on the secondary market. These include Global Authenticators International (GAI), Card Collector Services (CCS), and Sports Collectors Digest (SCD), to name a few.

When grading became popular in the early- to mid-'90s, new grading companies sprouted up in unprecedented quantities. Some earned very poor reputations. While smaller, and less well-known companies exist, it is strongly advised that collectors only trust their collection to those first mentioned: PSA, BGS and SCG. Those are the companies with the best reputation in the hobby.

The Cost of Card Grading

As mentioned earlier, exact fees differ among card grading companies, however they all charge based on the following criteria:

  1. The number of cards submitted.
  2. The desired turnaround time to have your cards graded and returned.

Other factors that can determine service price are:

  • The value of the card.
  • Whether a card containing an autograph is to be authenticated as well as graded.
  • If the card is an oddball or oddly sized card.

Also, keep in mind that you are required to pay two-way shipping. When sending to the company, pay for the appropriate amount of insurance, delivery and signature confirmation. For return shipping, each company will have their own established fee structure. This usually includes insurance.

It should be noted that each major grading company regularly appears at sports card and memorabilia shows throughout the year. At these events, they often provide onsite submissions and onsite card grading services. This can save a you a lot amount of money on shipping and insurance fees. It also provides the additional security of not releasing your cards into the possession of a third-party parcel carrier.

How to Submit Cards for Grading

Before you send your cards in to be graded, you may need to pick up the following supplies:

  • Penny Sleeves
  • Semi-Rigid Card Saver Holders
  • Packing Peanuts or Bubble Wrap
  • Packing Tape

While the practice may vary in the details from company to company, the basics are the same. They involve completing a submission form and packaging cards to send to the grading facility. Be sure to refer to each company's specific submission policy prior to starting the process. However, here are general guidelines that apply to all companies.

Once the card grading submission form is completed, prepare your cards for shipping by putting each of them in a penny sleeve and then into a semi-rigid holder like those from the popular Card Saver series. Do not use top-loaders, snap tights or screw-downs. Most grading companies will return cards back to you ungraded if they are sent in this way.

Next, place all of the cards to be submitted in between two pieces of cardboard that are larger than the cards' holders. This will make sure they don't bend.

Secure the bundle with rubber bands. Be sure that the rubber bands are not too tight. They should be just tight enough to hold the cardboard pieces together and prevent the cards from falling out. Tight rubber bands could damage your cards.

Prepare the box for shipping by filling it partially with packing peanuts, bubble wrap or newspaper. Nestle the card bundle and fill the remaining portion of the box. Insert the completed submission form and payment. Use non-clear packaging tape to completely wrap the box, not just the box edges. From there, follow the specific submission instructions from the appropriate company. Keep a copy of your card grading submission form for your records.

This is the time to think of any additional services required, such as autograph authentication. Additionally, some card grading companies allow collectors to determine a minimum acceptable grade. For example, a collector may specify that if a card receives a grade lower than an 8, that it not be encapsulated. The collector is still charged the full price for having the card processed, graded and returned.

Some companies offer an actual card grading submission kit that comes with a submission form, fee schedule and materials for packaging your order. This is a great customer service gesture and can save collectors money. Check the company's website to see if they offer this.

Receiving Your Order

Once you receive your order, carefully examine it. Cross-reference the contents to the packing slip and the copy of the original submission form. Verify that the cards have been cataloged properly by entering the number into the company's database to make sure that the grade on the label is connected to your card.

Storage, Archival and Display

There are several options for storing and displaying your graded cards. The size of an encapsulated graded card requires specially-sized boxes. They vary from simple corrugated cardboard boxes all the way up to elaborate wood and velvet-lined archival boxes. The choice is personal to taste and budget. However, regardless of what system you use, be sure your graded cards are secure from sliding into each other. The card capsules are prone to scratching. While this does not impact the card's grade and subsequent value of the card itself, it certainly diminishes its eye appeal.

Display cases that allow you to slide cards into secured trays, display in multiple rows and can be wall-mounted make for an excellent presentation to show off any graded card collection.

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Rob Bertrand

Rob is a former member of The Cardboard Connection Writing Staff and co-host of Cardboard Connection Radio.He is an avid collector with over 20 years of active experience in the hobby.

User Comments

  1. I have a question about a 1954 tops Johnny Antonelli 119 that I have a graded copy of a 9.5 by SMG sports memorabilia group what’s the value if any or does SMG even exist anymore if so what’s their parent company because I can’t find anywhere on the web

  2. I received a lot of vintage trading cards (early 60’s). I was wondering if anyone has any recommendations on how to determine whether or not I should pay to have them graded? There are some that I definitely know that I should get graded (rookie Wilt Chamberlain, Mickey Mantles, Hank Aaron’s etc.) There are just so many other cards that may benefit from grading. I was thinking about taking them to a trading card shop and see what there recommendations are. Is paying someone for an hour of their time to look through the collection to determine if I should have certain cards graded even a thing? I dont feel right wasting a card shops time when I dont have any intention of selling to them. I would be forthright letting them know but wasn’t sure if that is even something they would do.

  3. PSA offers a breakdown of grading standards that can be helpful in understanding what you have.
    From there, you can check completed sales values on eBay to see which cards are worth the time. This is all free. Asking/paying a local card shop to tell you which cards to grade is an option, it just depends on the person you talk to and what they’re willing to do. You can also submit them for sale ungraded and see what offers you get.

  4. So I’m going through my old collection from when I was a kid and I’ve got a lot of Fleer and Donruss Griffey Jr cards, plus a factory sealed ’89 Upper Deck and ’89 Fleer set box, as well as an ’89 Upper Deck Griffey Jr. in a plaque that I usually display with an autographed bat of his…

    I’m moving and looking to offload pretty much all of my old cards, is it worth getting all of these Griffey Jr. cards graded or just hope to sell them at near standard prices rather than a graded mint/whatever price?

  5. That all depends on the grade. You want to familiarize yourself with the entire process so you understand the cost and time for grading, plus the possible premium at different grades and what condition your cards are actually in.

  6. I have a large collection of Garbage Pail Kids cards that I’m looking to have graded and want to sell. Will PSA take a look even though their speciality seems to be sports? Should I contact a different company to grade these types of cards? Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance!

  7. i am just getting familiar with this pricing structure for authenticating and grading cards. i understand that it would cost more to have a higher value card graded. it requires a little more attention. I don’t fully understand “declared” value. is that the value you think the card has? or the value that PSA or others say it has after grading it?

    here’s a situation that provides context: i have 53 Mantle Topps card. i want to put it in for grading and authentication. If PSA says it’s not authentic, and therefore worthless, what do I pay? i was on the site and it seems like if I think the card (if real) is worth $5000, I would pay $500 for them to tell me it’s not real. which would be the ultimate waste of money. thanks

  8. It would boil down to how they classify the card so that would be something to clarify specifically with PSA.

    From the Grading facts page (
    Q: What are “Qualifiers” and “No Grades”?
    A: A “Qualifier” is a term used when an item meets all of the criteria for a particular grade but may still have one significant flaw. Depending on the severity of the flaw, we may be able to “qualify” the item for a higher grade by identifying this indiscretion on the label, for example: OC – Off Center or PD– Print Defects. You have the option of selecting “No Qualifiers” on the submission form; however, please keep in mind the card grade will be lowered depending on the severity. Moreover, there are certain qualifiers that PSA will not remove such as MK –marked and MC – miscut, for example.

    The “No Grade” term is used when an item cannot be graded by PSA for a variety of reasons. For example, PSA will not grade items that bear evidence of trimming (N1), restoration (N2), recoloration (N3), questionable authenticity (N4), altered stock (N5) or cleaning (N7). In the event that PSA rejects an item for any of these reasons, it will be returned not encapsulated, however the full grading price is still charged, as the determination to reject a card requires review by PSA’s authenticators and graders. PSA will also not grade items that do not meet the minimum size requirement (N6), were miscut by the manufacturer (N8), or items we do not grade due to being an obscure issue or not fitting in our holders (N9). Items that receive N6, N8 or N9 results will not be charged grading.”

  9. What happens if I pay for the card thinking it is a 9 and it comes out to a 10? would I owe them the difference? or would they grade at a 9 as I paid for a 9 (they would lose money if I submitted as a 9 and they graded at a 10 but didn’t charge me the increase in price).

  10. You’d have to check directly with the grading company. This is what PSA says:

    Q: What happens if my Declared Value is understated?

    A: If PSA determines, in its sole discretion and at any point in the process, that the submitted Declared Value has been understated relative to the market value of the item, PSA reserves the right to decline your stated Declared Value. If PSA declines the Declared Value of an item, PSA may require you to pay for the accurate Service Level as a condition of PSA completing the authentication and grading process as to the subject item. If you refuse, or are unable, to pay PSA for the accurate Service Level, then PSA will return the item to you unprocessed at your cost, and you will be charged for the Service Level at which you submitted the item. PSA’s determination that you have understated the Declared Value will affect only the Service Level charge, it will not change the Declared Value for purposes of establishing the maximum item value for claim or shipping insurance purposes.

  11. Have you noticed in your twenty years of active experience the tightening of “standards” over the years as the dollar values have escalated? What may have been a 6 or 7 10 years ago is now a 4 or 5 with PSA?

  12. I have a guy who walked in with a mickey mantle and a babe ruth card “sealed” with a authenticity label and a KGS logo. I can’t show a picture. Never seen anything like this. Anyone familiar?

  13. I have a quick question for you what are you basing your value of the cards on, I understand the grating part if the cards not centred right or the ends on them are little Is soft or frayed if it’s not centred I got it if it’s a reprint but the value of the card like Babe Ruth who determines if hes Valuable or not Some people think hes the greatest other people think hes overrated but does the value of the person itself mean anything or is it just his stats or what that part I don’t get I think hes the greatest no matter what currency comes out with and that’s a personal thing but is it because of his stats or because who he is that part I don’t get.

  14. Ultimately, value is based on the market. The market decides who’s valuable. Many things go into it: the player, the condition, the rarity, the set, the demand, prior sales values.

  15. Hello Trey, I have baseball cards and each of them are in good shape do you grade cards?

  16. Nope. You would need to reach out to the companies mentioned for grading.

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