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Grade School 101 – To Grade or Not to Grade Cards?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, the collectibles boom that occurred mid-COVID was the most seismic and rapid black swan event to happen in the history of Trading Card Games (TCGs). One of the byproducts was an exponential spike in the desire to grade cards. Per sources at multiple grading companies, the figures started out as “two times normal volume,” then ballooned to “five times normal volume,” then “10 to 12 times normal volume,” and they continued to rise until, well, they wouldn’t tell us any more.

That may not sound like a lot, but imagine if your boss told you “hey, I need you to do twice the work,” and then next week “hey yeah, uh, here’s 10 times the work.” All I was told was “it never stopped going up, and I don’t know how long we’re even going to be able to keep the submission window open.” Fast forward to Summer 2021, and here we are; the number one largest grading company in the world, Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), is closed to most submissions as of April, and the second largest grading company by volume, Beckett Grading Services (BGS), also followed suit on June 5.

Header - PSA Closing

As the collectibles boom pressed onward, the first casualty was PSA. Multitudes of new Pokemon TCG collectors had seen the buzz generated by Logan Paul and his Base 1st Booster Boxes and Base 1st Hologram Charizards, which had generated millions of views. This resulted in tens of millions of Pokemon TCG cards being submitted to PSA’s headquarters, which was over 10 times the volume to which they were accustomed. In early April, their only option was to shut down submissions for all pricing levels lower than their $300/card level.

One of the biggest reasons for the shutdown was the massive volume of new graders, and the grading of not only the rarest and most collectable cards, but of nearly any Pokemon card. People would send in cards worth $10, pay bulk grading fees and immediately try and flip them online to make a small profit. The largest grading company in the world was brought to its knees by throngs of people submitting Pokemon cards which had no business being graded, and the market would be forever changed.

 

Header - Beckett Closing

Despite PSA’s closing, the momentum did not decrease, and much of the submission demand found its way to the next largest grading company in the market, BGS. BGS had similar volume increases since the beginning of the pandemic, as submissions were already backed up in early 2020. By summer 2020, they were at two or three times their normal volume, pushing back orders, and by January of 2021, we heard from management within the organization they were at over 12 times their typical numbers. “60 day” orders submitted prior to summer 2020 were taking up to and over a year to be returned, and I still have “20 day” orders submitted during summer and fall of 2020 that I fully expect to be celebrating their birthdays at BGS headquarters.

Not only that, the quality control resulting from this amount of volume has also significantly deteriorated, with the TCG community and even the most loyal Beckett stalwarts indicating their disgust at receiving damaged cards, inappropriately graded cards, cards lacking service features that were paid for and slabs that have food, skin, hair and other foreign particles encapsulated inside. As of the first week of June 2021, BGS followed the same path as PSA and closed themselves off to any further submission other than their most expensive “Premium” service level.

 

Header - Be Patient and Don't Settle for Less

There are still other inferior and less popular options out there, but the purpose of grading cards is to recognize the premiums that premium condition pieces should enjoy. There are no qualified substitutes out there, and even the new kid on the block, CGC, has proven incapable of consistent grading nor able to fetch sales premiums similar to PSA or BGS. They have poorly sealed slabs with no inner seal, an inferior attribute copied from PSA. They tried to emulate BGS’s subgrades system, but their approach only inserts additional inaccuracy and subjectivity to the process; adopting their own nonintuitive algorithm that makes the lowest Centering grade 8.0 (thus rewarding off-centered cards with high grades), while also “grading on a curve” to boost cards that are objectively inferior in print quality.

This is just one example of a number of “also-rans,” but my personal opinion, and one that is shared by most collectors in this space, is to wait for the “Big Two” to get their act together. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself going through the grading process twice; once to be disappointed by a subpar experience/result and another when you go back to a grading company that has the experience and history to accurately grade premium condition cards.

 

Header - What Do I Do Until Then?

With the prices for the premium services at BGS and PSA limiting submissions to only the most valuable cards at this time, but a recommendation to not use other services, what do collectors do with these stacks of cards ripe for grading? First, be patient! Collecting and grading cards should almost always be about the long-term enjoyment and investment. Even though it’s exciting to submit cards and get the results, there’s no rush. Things will calm down (believe me, grading companies want to take your money for all those cards) and submissions will re-open.

Until that time, take care of your cards! Don’t just shove them in a box or binder and leave them at the bottom of the closet. Prepare as if you were getting ready to send off your grading order now. Carefully sleeve each card in a penny sleeve and semi-rigid. Keep these cards in a secure box, away from dust and direct sunlight, and in a temperature-controlled environment. And it should go without saying to keep away from food and beverages, pets, children or anything else that could potentially damage your cards.

Also, unless you need the cash, don’t rush to sell grade-worthy cards raw. While it may be tempting to say “well, I don’t know when grading companies are going to re-open, and it might still be a year turnaround even after that, so why don’t I just sell now?” If your cards are truly specimens worth grading, then the best move is to bide your time, and store them securely until they can be graded. Between the potential growth of the collectibles market over that time, plus the grading premium, you’ll likely be happy you held. Hopefully BGS and PSA can get back to business as usual soon and grade cards (or maybe another company will come along that incorporates the desirable attributes from both, rather than emulating the shortcomings of each), but in the meantime, take care of your cards, and be patient.

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Additional author credits to Ben Kiel.

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