Beginner’s Guide to Trading Card Grading12 min read

 

You’ve been out of the card collecting loop for a while, but you’ve heard over and over from your collector friends that trading card value is making headlines. Curious to see what all the hubbub is about, you did what anyone would do and unearthed your stacks and stacks of trading cards.  

Glorious stacks and stacks of cards.

Now, with a trove of cards at the ready, you want to take the next step in elevating your collection. But what is the next step? Those friends of yours have mentioned trading card grading, but you have so many questions: What is trading card grading? How do I get my cards graded? Where do I get my cards graded? What does it cost … the list goes on.

Well, fear not; we’ll cover everything about card grading in the content that follows. And it all starts with PSA, the largest third-party authentication company in the world that specializes in authenticating and grading everything from trading cards to tickets to baseballs.

But we have lots more to cover. After reading this article, you’ll know everything there is to know about trading card grading, and you can take your collection to the next step.

 

What Is Trading Card Grading?

What does trading card grading entail? When it comes to PSA, when you get your card graded a team of graders inspect the card for authenticity. Then, the card is reviewed for any evidence of manipulation, or “card doctoring.”

Next, if the card passes those steps, the card condition is scrutinized, and a 1-10 PSA grade is applied. We’ll cover the PSA Grading Scale in the next section.

Display of PSA-graded cards.

Finally, PSA places your card in its sonically sealed holder. In addition to protecting the card within this hard-plastic holder, pertinent card info is printed on the label. As you can see below, the card date, company, number and subject are all displayed.

The star of the label might be the PSA grade on the right-hand side. But, the PSA certification number (the unique number applied to each card graded by PSA) is another vital component of the PSA label.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t be possible without the foundation of PSA; it’s well-known grading system.

The PSA Grading Scale

Now, let’s explore the PSA Grading Scale. The key phrase here is “card condition.” The whole concept of grading is predicated on card condition. As an easy rule of thumb, the higher the grade, the better the card condition. And before we cover the grading scale, we must delve into the factors that influence card condition.

Centering

How does the card’s image align, with respect to its four edges? Ideally, a card is centered from top to bottom and left to right. When centering is discussed, graders use percentages to describe how a card’s main design is oriented. According to the PSA Grading Scale, ideally centered cards feature a tolerance that does not exceed 55/45 to 60/40 percent on the front and 75/25 percent on the reverse.

Corners

With rounded corners, sharp corners, soft corners and so on, there are many terms to describe the condition of corners, another crucial factor in determining trading card condition. A card can display great centering, but flawed corners can mean a big hit to a card’s grade.

Edges

The four edges of a card also play an important role in its grade. Are the edges rough and worn? Do they show dings, dents or other forms of damage? Are the edges black? Colored edges of any sort are notorious for showing wear and incurring chips, especially black edges. Don’t fail to inspect the edges of any card, for they too are crucial in determining a card’s overall condition.

Surface

From scratches to creases, “surface” refers to the condition of the cardboard that comprises the card. Some surfaces, like the reflective surfaces of Pokémon cards or certain modern sports cards like Bowman Chrome, are more apt to incur scratches. Vintage cards, meanwhile, are susceptible to condition issues such as the wearing of the gloss from the front of the cards. Creases can either be very light and touch just one surface of the card or much deeper and affect both surfaces.

A Note Regarding Eye Appeal

Now, there are certain aspects of grading that are less standardized. The Grading Scale is the guiding framework, but some cards have that “wow factor” that isn’t built into the 1-10 grades.

We’re referring to that “eye appeal” phrase, which has been tossed around since card grading was a thing and it continues to factor into the practice. It’s such an intrinsic part of card grading – let alone, the hobby – Collectors Universe President and CEO Joe Orlando wrote about it, too.

Eye appeal’s definition is in the name. With an emphasis on aesthetics, how appealing is a card to the eye? Two examples of the same card may be in a very similar condition, but one of the cards is just more striking, more aesthetically pleasing … more … eye appealing. In some cases, the more appealing card may get bumped up a grade if it was on the fringe of another. Or, its value may be pushed up in auction, simply because it looked better than the other card.

From the grading aspect, we’ll refer to Orlando’s words:

“When it comes to technical grading, there are times – many times – when a card, coin, autograph or otherwise are right on the fence between grades. In those cases, the degree of eye appeal can be the difference in the collectible reaching a slightly higher grade or it can act as an obstacle to a higher grade if the aesthetic quality of the collectible isn’t perceived as a plus.”

Factors like centering and corners weigh heavily on the final grade, and eye appeal might be able to give a card that’s teetering on the line between two grades that little nudge it needs. With the above factors in mind, PSA graders then apply PSA’s 1-10 Grading Scale to cards.

If we’re talking about the sales aspect of eye appeal, imagine two examples of the same card, in the same grade, listed on eBay. The card with the greater eye appeal might garner a higher selling price. If the card simply looks better, it stands to reason that the better-looking card may be in higher demand. It’s happened countless times before, and you can bet it will happen again.

Beauty is in the eye of the card holder, right?

To better understand the cards in each grade, eye appeal, and how condition factors in, PSA’s Photograde tool is a great resource. It lets you compare cards in each grade. You can even see how your cards stack up against each example depicted.

A Look at the 1-10 Grades of the PSA Grading Scale

Finally, let’s look at each of the 10 PSA grades. Now remember, there are half-point grades throughout the 2-9 grading scale, too, but we’re only touching on the scale here. The scale is covered more extensively on the Grading Standards page.

  • GEM-MT 10 (Gem Mint)
  • MINT 9 (Mint)
  • NM-MT 8 (Near Mint-Mint)
  • NM 7 (Near Mint)
  • EX-MT 6 (Excellent-Mint)
  • EX 5 (Excellent)
  • VG-EX 4 (Very Good-Excellent)
  • VG 3 (Very Good)
  • GOOD 2 (Good)
  • PR 1 (Poor)

As we mentioned earlier, once the card is graded, it will be encapsulated with a PSA holder and a PSA label affixed.

Speaking of sending your cards in for grading, one overarching question is always in the back of would-be submitters’ minds…

Should I Get My Trading Cards Graded?

When your collector friends mentioned trading card grading, they were on to something. Trading card grading can boost your collection in terms of security and liquidity. Sales figures continue to show that graded trading cards tend to sell for more than those that are not graded. And we’re seeing this phenomenon often as the hobby grows in popularity.

But the question, “Should I get my cards graded” is entirely up to you. We support collecting and the hobby in general. We can only show you the numbers in terms of value and recent auction prices, and other benefits that grading your cards may bring.

In terms of value, take Mickey Mantle’s iconic 1952 Topps #311. We’ll look at the card with a grade of PSA 8. Back when the cards were released, the Topps Company had a surplus and couldn’t give the cards away. Seriously. The cards were more apt to be dumped in the ocean than garner incredible value at auction.

Fast forward to 2008; that Mantle card in a grade of PSA 8 sold for nearly $100K! But that’s just the start of trading card mania! Six years later, a Mantle card graded PSA 8 sold for $268K! Now, in 2020, a PSA 8 Mantle sold for $373K. See for yourself on Auction Prices Realized.

This 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle in PSA 8 sold for $373k.

That’s an incredible increase in value in such a short period of time. And to think, these cards were once considered disposable!

Now let’s talk about the security aspect card grading brings. Cards graded by PSA are encapsulated in tamper-evident holders that aren’t only sturdy, they’re stackable and, well, look great. You’ll protect your cards from scratches, general wear and dangers that cards tend to come across, and you can proudly display them if the desire occurs.

Deciding What Cards to Get Graded

You’ve familiarized yourself with the PSA Grading Scale and perused PSA’s online resources. Now what cards do you set aside for grading?

Trout’s 2011 Topps Update rookie remains widely popular among collectors.

Start sorting your collection by separating the cards you think might be of value. Are we talking modern cards or vintage cards? For modern cards, rookie cards of notable players like Mike Trout are a start. Autographed cards can also be more coveted.

Vintage cards tend to retain their value more so than modern, but if you have any Hall of Fame rookies on your hands, then you may have struck gold. Maybe. Set those aside if you have them.

For trading card game (TCG) cards, like Pokémon cards, holographic cards are in general more valuable than non-holographic cards. But the really coveted cards are 1st Edition Pokémon cards. You’ll be lucky to catch those.

Now that you have your potential PSA submission cards sorted, research the values on the SMR Price Guide and Auction Prices Realized. Take your new pile and see how they each stack up according to PSA’s grading scale.

Sift through your cards and refer to our notes on card condition above. Identify those well-centered cards, with sharp corners, crisp edges, and clean and scratch-free surfaces. Those are better suited to withstand the test of the watchful graders’ eyes and the PSA Grading Scale.

Finally, we can’t tell you what cards to submit; that is entirely up to you. But, from that new pile, which are the standout cards in the best condition, that could potentially be of the most value? That might make the overarching question easier to answer.

How to Get Cards Graded By PSA

You have an idea of the standout cards that you’d like to submit. Now it’s time to start the process. The following is a quick walkthrough on how to submit your cards to PSA.

Step 1. Create a free account on PSA’s Online Submission Center

Visit the PSA Online Submission Center and create a free account.

Step 2. Follow the simple, step-by-step process

From there, the system takes you through a step-by-step process. Simply follow the prompts on the screen. Unless you have any jumbo cards in your submission pile, you’ll likely be submitting “Regular or Small-Sized Cards,” so check that first box and proceed through each step.  

Step 3. Complete the Submission

Once you’ve worked through each step, verify that your information is correct, agree to PSA’s Terms and Conditions and complete the submission. 

Step 4. Package and ship your submission

For the smoothest process, follow the shipping guidelines that PSA lays out. Prepare the cards for shipping (make sure they are in card sleeves like Card Savers) and include the printed copy of your form. Don’t forget to write the service level that you are using on the outside of the box. It helps in the sorting process and ensures that your cards are entered into the system as efficiently as possible. 

What Does Card Grading Cost?

There are a few factors that determine the cost of PSA card grading. For starters, visit the fees page within the Online Submission Center. The key thing to note is that grading fees are dependent on what level of service you select and the Declared Value of the card.  

There are multiple levels of service that vary according to the card value and the turnaround time (the time it takes for your submission to be completed).   

Fees start at $20 under the “Economy Service” (for cards valued up to $499). From there, service levels go up in tier, along with corresponding fees.   

Taking the Next Step with Your Card Collection

Whether you’re interested in appraising the cards that you own or looking to sell your cards and want to first gauge their value, the online resources available at www.PSAcard.com will guide you in your collecting journey. 

Keep a keen eye on the factors that may affect value, starting with condition, and proceed accordingly. 

Learn the PSA Grading Scale and apply what you know to the cards you own. 

Then, match the cards to PSA’s online resources, like Photograde, Price Guide and Auction Prices Realized. 

Follow these steps and you’re on your way to becoming a trading card value master. 

If you’re interested in unlocking even lower prices from PSA, join the Collectors Club to access member exclusive deals and the value pricing program.  

Posted by Ryan Gaeta

Ryan is a sports fan and Non-Sports aficionado, who is still tormented by the fact he owned the entire 1st Edition run of Pokémon cards but traded them away or ruined them at one point or another.