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The Ultimate Guide to Collectible Card Game Grading

This is a piece dedicated to grading cards and how things can be handled. Each company will be looked at: their offerings, shortcomings and successes.

For transparency, I currently have a very large number of cards at both CGC and PSA, along with a small submission at Beckett.

If you have any questions about anything grading-related prior to reading this, I hope to answer them – if I don’t, drop me a comment below.

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Why Grade Your Cards?

The reasons tend to fall under two plans once the cards are graded. There are other decisions to make in the grading process and they largely depend on which of these two avenues you take.

Grading for Profit

The act of grading cards to flip/sell them.

When you grade a card, its value tends to increase if it gets a good grade. This is because the condition and the authenticity of the card has now been proven and the customer would not have to go through the trouble of grading the card themselves. A card receiving a good grade generally means a 9 or 10 through PSA if you are looking for a large price increase, but even grades lower than that can demand a premium. This is especially true for cards that were already expensive prior to grading them, such as a first edition Base Set Charizard.

So, when you are grading cards to sell them for profit, there are a few things to consider:

  • Turnaround time: How long can you afford to wait for the cards to come back from PSA?
  • Cost: How much can you afford to pay to get the cards graded?
  • Trajectory of the cards: Do you see the value of the cards you want to grade changing severely soon?

Cost and turnaround time are very much intertwined; faster, more money, slower, less money.

Trajectory of the cards ties into this decision as well because the expected price could change the time in which you want to sell the card, which could change when you need to have it back. This is not always the easiest thing to determine and does not apply to all cards, but there are times where you can be confident a price change is going to occur. For example, if you think you just got a great deal on a reasonably expensive card, but you expect the price to decrease before you get it back if you send it off via a lower service level, it is likely a good idea to just have it graded under a higher service level. This way you can sell the card faster, hopefully avoiding the price decrease you expected. In this process, you at the very least get your capital back much faster, even if you were wrong about your projection or failed to capitalize on it.

The same consideration should be made when dealing with an expected price increase, but that can go one of two ways. If you expect the price to increase in the very near future, but not continue to do so over time, you can treat it the same as the example I posted above. This way you can attempt to benefit from that price increase and get your capital back faster.

However, if you expect a card to steadily increase over the next few months or throughout a year, the situation can be handled differently. If you expect a card to sell for more soon, there is no reason to rush the process of having it graded. You would either be paying more to have it graded just to have it back and not do anything with it or you would be doing such so that you could get it back and then sell It prior to the potential increase. Neither of these make much sense, so let me talk about what could be done to save some money on the front end and potentially make some extra money on the back end. If you expect a card to increase in value with time, you should probably just go with a lower service level. This means you will have a long wait ahead of you, but that’s okay, you don’t really want to sell the card yet anyways. This also means saving some money, as the lower service levels are the cheapest ones. Once you have the card back, you can sell it, hopefully at a higher price or you could even continue to wait if you believe that price is still increasing. This type of decision should be based on your personal situation though, as everyone will have different opinions and needs.

Even though the above discussion was about trajectory, the basics of opportunity cost when it comes to card gradings should be clearly outlined. The price versus turnaround time can be a tricky decision to make, but hopefully this section made it a little bit easier.

Overall, remember:

  • Turnaround times and cost: You obviously want as large of a margin as possible, so you want to keep your cost down. With that being said, there is a balance to find here, because the less you pay, the longer it takes. Some services will be quicker than others on this, but they will have some downsides of their own.
  • Price recognition: Some services are going to have lower sales data and market exposure than others, meaning the cards may take longer to sell or sell at a lower price. Patience is key here, but you also don’t want to sit on all your cards and never actually sell anything.
  • Value of the card: Not only do you have maximum value levels for each tier, which can force your hand when it comes to picking a service level but paying for a faster turnaround time can help free up some capital in a shorter period if need be.
    Trajectory of a card: If you think a card has the potential to increase in value over time, choosing a slower turnaround time and saving money is generally the right call, since you won’t want to sell it quickly anyways. On the other side of the coin, if you think a card has the potential to decrease over time, paying for a faster turnaround time could help improve your situation. You will have the opportunity to sell it faster, meaning you are less likely to lose money if the card has a negative trajectory.
  • Cards you already have in your possession or being graded: If you already have a few of a card ready to sell, or you have some currently being graded, you should be in no real rush to get an additional copy back in a quick manner. If you got it back, you would not be selling it anyways, so you should probably pick a slower turnaround time for it and save the money.

I mainly grade with PSA and have a very large number of cards there now. I do some of this through the Ludkin’s Collectibles middleman service, despite having my own account, due to the discounts they offer on some of the higher end services. I also grade some with CGC, but not nearly as much as PSA. I have completed one reasonably sized submission with them and have another two currently at their facilities.

All in all, it really is personal discretion on decisions like this. There is not a perfect answer for everyone, so I recommend just looking at the options and deciding for yourself. I would factor in everything written above as well. Just as a word of advice, I would tend to play it safe, especially at the beginning and not risk leaving yourself in a vulnerable position. This may mean lower your margins by paying for a faster turnaround time, but you will still gain experience from everything and should be more comfortable in the future. Again, it is totally your choice and should be made based on your personal situation.

Grading for Collecting

The act of grading cards to keep in your collection.

Grading cards for your personal collection can be a great idea! This is totally in the eye of the beholder, so you will have to decide this for yourself, but a lot of people believe that cards look nicer once they are graded. The case provides that extra pizzazz some people are looking for. Additionally, a graded card means a safer card, so you won’t have to worry about any of your favorites getting damaged by any accidents or general wear. There are other benefits to the grading process, such as authentication and condition confirmation, but the points above are the main ones for collectors. I am sure there are other things some collectors might consider and that is totally fine!

Time to talk about the process of grading cards for your collection. You will learn about the actual act later, but the thoughts below might help you make a crucial decision.

I will say that this avenue prevents a much simpler decision to make, as you do not have to worry about crunching the numbers to make a profit. You also don’t have to worry about any price changes, you just get to admire the amazing art that a lot of Pokemon cards provide.

The turnaround time and cost entanglement are still very much present here, though and that is the decision that you will have to make. Luckily, it is entirely a personal one. Once you have picked your grading company, which is a large part of grading cards to have in your collection, since the look of the slab means a ton, you will have to select the turnaround time you want to go with.

If you are impatient and don’t mind spending the additional money, you can have them graded under a faster service level, saving you the stress of having them out of your possession for months at a time.

If you are more patient or just don’t want to spend the money, there is no shame in going with a bulk service level! You will have a long wait ahead of you, but you will save some money in the process, which could help you to further expand your collection!

If you are just trying to encapsulate your cards for the sake of protection and eye appeal, the main choice you must make is what service provides you with the case you like the best. CGC, PSA and BGS have some large differences in the appearance and feel of their cases. Quick casing thoughts:

  • BGS tends to be described as a larger, bulkier frame.
  • PSA is sort of the middle ground here, as it is not bulky nor the sleekest of the options but offers a highly quality case with a nice appearance.
  • Finally, there is CGC, which offers in my opinion the best-looking case due to the sleekness and nice labeling, but also looks somewhat cheap.
  • When you hold one in your hand, it is a different experience than when you are just looking at it and that feeling is one that is hard to describe.

The Companies

BGS: Beckett Grading Services

BGS Thoughts

BGS grades a variety of cards, including Pokemon, and while they do have some market share at that, they are predominantly known for their sports and Magic card work. PSA has been the king in Pokemon for a while, the same could be said for Beckett in Magic. Beckett is also very popular in the sports card world, though I do not know enough about that to comment on what company is more popular or anything like that. Beckett was founded in 1999 and had graded over 12,000,000 items as of April 2020.

So, I just want to talk about my personal experience with Beckett, and what I have done with them thus far. Until recently, I just never saw a reason to grade with Beckett, as their turnaround time and price were comparable to PSA, and I just didn’t see a reason for me to shift away from them. I did just send off my first ever Beckett submission, and that is because they are able to grade a larger range of cards, which is a great aspect to grading with them. In my case, this meant grading some non-English cards from the ex-era, which are not graded by CGC or PSA right now. While this is irrelevant to my situation, Beckett has also been known to grade more of the error or oddity cards that PSA has been less interested in doing themselves. CGC has been good about this too, though, so that does take away some of the exclusivity that Beckett had in that area of things.

On top of the current submission I have with them, I have also purchased and traded for Beckett graded cards in the past. This was because I was getting them at a price I liked, and I went on to resell them with no issues at all. There is a market for BGS slabs, but it’s just not the most popular option for Pokemon now. There are some great reasons to grade with Beckett though, don’t get me wrong. For starters, the illusive BGS Black label got Beckett a lot of attention when a Charizard-GX from Hidden Fates sold for over $10,000 at release. These labels are handed out when a card gets the best grade possible: all four sub-grades are a 10. While that price ended up being inflated because the difficulty for grading cards from that set was overestimated at the time, that Black label is no exception to the fact that they demand a premium over a PSA 10.

While I think CGC perfect 10 does compete with the customer base for this level of grading, I also think it will take time for CGC perfect 10 to reach the same level of respect that the Black label receives. Beckett is also a great option for sending in high-end cards right when the set drops. This is when you will get your card back as fast as possible, you could be the first on the market, and fresh cards like that have the best chance at receiving a Black label grade. Past that, grading with Beckett for your personal collection is obviously totally fine, that just comes down to personal preference. I have always said that personal collection decisions just come down to personal preference and that individual’s situation, which remains true here.

Overall, the best reasons to grade with Beckett are to chase the sought-after Black label, to grade cards that can’t be elsewhere, or to do so because you prefer the BGS slab.

BGS Grading Options & More

A faster turnaround time is going to be more expensive, a fact regardless of what service you decide to go with. You essentially must choose between time and money.

Not a whole lot to discuss when it comes to the different service levels. These are just personal preference, and everyone’s situation is different, so this is just a choice you will have to make yourself. Keep in mind the declared value limitations though, as that can eliminate some of the options depending on what you’re submitting. Past that, you need to know about subgrades. Subgrades are an important decision you must make, as they can mean all the difference when a customer is looking at your card. If you are grading for your personal collection, this is just another choice you will have to make for yourself. For my BGS submission, which contained cards I planned to sell, I decided not to go with subgrades because the cards are very low value and relatively obscure to begin with. This allows me to sell the card once it is graded without having to pay extra for the subgrades, which I felt was ideal for the situation at hand. However, I get subgrades on a very large majority of my CGC cards, so I feel that would be the case for me with Beckett as well.

BGS Pros & Cons

  • Black label potential
  • Quick turnaround times available
  • Grade a larger variety of cards, including errors and non-English
  • Option for subgrades
  • Known as one of the bulkier slabs, though that is also personal preference
  • Grades lower than 9 can be inconsistent
  • Slow turnaround times for bulk services

CGC: Certified Guaranty Company

CGC Thoughts

CGC is the newest competitor to the trading card scene. They’ve been a large contender in the comic book world for 20 years now. This means that they have a lot of experience when it comes to grading – grading trading cards is just an extension to their already very large business.

CGC Grading Options & More

Standard is $20 per card and has an estimated turnaround time of 20 days and express is $30 per card and has an estimated turnaround time of 10 days. If you decide to go with a lower service, you are looking at $8 per card and a turnaround time of about a month. Two additional things to note, is that you will have to pay an additional $5 per card if you want subgrades, which I highly recommend doing. Not only do they provide detailed information on the condition of the card, but they also make the case look nicer and have a more official vibe.

Lastly, but not something that should be overlooked, are the maximum values for each tier. Once you get to dealing with some higher end cards, you will outgrow some of the lower service levels, forcing you to pick some of the higher-level service levels. This does cost more money, but also means a faster turnaround time and full protection of your card.

If you are going to be grading a couple cards here and there, it doesn’t really make sense to pay all the money for a yearly membership, does it? CGC is the cheapest membership of the three grading companies when you get the cheapest one, but you are still paying a minimum of $25 to do so. On top of that, a lot of the service levels have a card minimum, meaning you might have trouble submitting cards even after you have a membership. Consider Ludkin’s Collectibles if you’re looking to grade cards sporadically.

Now, if you are going to be grading on a relatively consistent basis, or just like the idea of doing this yourself, getting a membership is going to be a good idea. With CGC, the higher the membership you get, the cheaper each submission will be for you, meaning the membership will eventually pay for itself. I went with the elite membership because I know I will get use out of it and I liked the benefits it had to offer. That is not a requirement by any means, though and you should select the one that has the benefits that fit you the best. This ranges from the previously mentioned $25 membership all the way up to elite, with two other options in between. The best membership option will vary for each person, so I recommend just looking at the cost and benefits of each and deciding for yourself.

CGC Pros & Cons

  • Faster turnaround times than competitors due to the other options running severely behind schedule
  • Comparable pricing as well and significantly cheaper if you decide to not get the subgrades
  • Despite being new, many collectors consider CGC to be the most accurate grading service
  • Lack of price recognition due to their service being relatively new, which makes selling the cards a slightly longer process and leaves potential for the cards to be worth slightly less
  • They are new to the game, so mistakes with casing and other details are more likely, I have experienced some of these myself

PSA: Professional Sports Authenticator

PSA Thoughts

PSA was founded in 1991 and has been authenticating collectibles ever since. They handle a ton of sports cards, their main function (along with other sports memorabilia and coins of all kinds). They grade a very large number of cards every day. The company is owned by Collectors Universe. Collectors Universe was recently overtaken by an investor group led by Nat Turner at $700,000,000 valuation. In June 2019, PSA reached the milestone of grading it’s 75 millionth collectible and they have had a huge leap in business since then, so I am sure that number has grown significantly since. For perspective, despite the brief shutdown and delays due to the virus, PSA reported that general period still managed to be the busiest they have ever had.

PSA Grading Options & More

For starters, a common misconception is that a membership is required to submit cards to PSA, this is simply not true. Having a membership allows you access to additional service levels, “bulk” options and the monthly specials. Bulk service levels are where you submit many cards, currently a minimum of twenty and pay a low price in exchange for a very long wait. For context, my earliest one of these still at PSA is from June and I have no expectation of receiving it back any time soon. The bulk service level is still a great thing to utilize, as it does let you submit cards at a lower cost. As for the monthly specials, most of the time they are not going to benefit you at all. This is because they are based on a quarterly rotating system and they often don’t involve Pokemon, meaning that they would not be of use. They always benefit someone out there, which is great for grading, but that someone is not always you.

Without a membership, you still have access to all the faster and more expensive of course, service levels. This means you can submit your cards, monitor their progress and have full control over the entire experience without paying the yearly membership fee. If you are not going to take advantage of some of the lower service levels, there is no reason to pay the membership and doing this is a fine option.

Now, for the less direct route, there are a lot of third-party companies/individuals that offer a middleman service to submit your cards for you. Doing this can save you some money and sometimes result in your cards being returned in a quicker manner, along with giving you access to all the service levels without having a membership. I must issue a word of caution, do not trust just anyone to do this for you, as you have very little control over the process once you ship off your cards. The most trusted middleman service out there is Ludkin’s Collectibles and I have submitted with them myself.

PSA Pros & Cons

  • Large amount of available price data and sales history
  • Price recognition
  • Established company in the hobby
  • Preferred grading company by many
  • Slightly pricier in comparison to other services
  • Long wait for submission return due to the company being backed up

How To Ship to These Grading Companies

This is something a lot of people overlook until it is time to ship the cards. Past that, from the standpoint who receives a very large number of cards in the mail from individuals and businesses, the amount of poorly packed cards is truly shocking. When it comes to shipping out a grading submission, not only do you want to pack the cards well, but there are some specific requirements to it as well. Below are a few bullet points that will help you with the process:

  • Leave no extra space in the box, this will make sure your cards are not moving around during shipment. I typically use bubble wrap for this, as it helps to protect the item very well as well.
  • Tape the outside of the box well, this will make sure the box does not open during transit or have any integrity issues.
  • Do not overly worry about how they request you to pack the cards, the key thing here is just having the cards arrive safely,
  • Make sure your cards are packed according to the packing list, as that ensures your list does not contain an error and prevents any potential delays that would otherwise occur. You must also include a copy of this packing slip inside your box.
  • On larger submissions, I tend to use the card saver boxes inside of my submission as a way of keeping the cards very safe and organized. I also tape this box shot and label the top of it to show where the submission starts and what order it goes in.
  • On smaller submissions, I place the stack of cards (inside card savers) in-between two pieces of cardboard and then use rubber bands to ensure the cards and cardboard are fully secure and will not move while in transit.
  • Depending on the submission size, I use a USPS Regional Rate Box A or B because they hold everything well, arrive quickly, and are very cost efficient. In rare cases of a very small submission, I have used a USPS Small Flat Rate Box as well.

I have never had any issues using these methods, but please be careful and make your own decisions. If you have any questions, feel free to refer to the grading company’s shipping guidelines and/or drop me a reply.

Conclusion

Grading can be daunting, don’t go it alone. I hope this article provided you with a solid foundation to not only decide whether or not to grade a special card, but how to do so. As always, if you have any questions or future article topic suggestions please leave a comment down below.

Peace,

Jimmy

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