Arbiters of authenticity

BVG_MantleWatching baseball card twitter over the past month or so has involved seeing a number of stories pop up which increasingly remind me of the art market. Many of these stories in particular involve grading companies and their increasingly prominent role as arbiters of “authenticity.”

The first story involves the newly-discovered 1950s Mickey Mantle. This is and extremely cool story and it’s always great to be reminded of how many things about baseball cards we all don’t know. They can always be another regional or oddball out there just waiting to be discovered and those discoveries are the stuff I’m sure all of us dream of. The thread on Net54 documenting the discovery is especially interesting as the community there came together to figure out what these were.

Buried in that story is the news that PSA refused to grade the newly-found cards. It seems that without a checklist, PSA doesn’t want to touch them. This strikes me as very weird if the grading companies are concerned with describing circulating cards. It is however totally consistent if the point of grading is to treat cards as part of a known catalog of works—in which case anything not in that catalog is inherently suspect.

SalvatorMundiIn the art world there was a lot of news this past year about the newly-attributed Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. Much of the news involved the enormous price that it sold for but a lot of the discussion was about attribution and whether it should be considered part of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné. While a significant number of experts attest that it is a Leonardo, many remain skeptical and from what I can tell the jury is still out.

The newly-discovered Mickey Mantle card is not comparable to an ostensibly-new Leonardo—especially in terms of how attribution in baseball cards is less about who made the card and is instead about who’s pictured. But I found myself noticing a number of similarities in the objects and how the discussion about getting an imprimatur which would allow them to be sold at auction became as important to the objects’ stories as their actual provenance. In short, without becoming part of the catalog these items weren’t “valuable.”

In the case of the Mantle card, Beckett ended up doing the legwork to add it to the catalog and get it graded. And I found myself wondering about what it means when one authority won’t touch a card when another one will. In the art market this kind of disagreement produces controversy and is a big warning flag to the buyer. In the card market though as long as someone has graded the card it seems like people are okay with it.

ToppsBeckett

Which brings us to the other grading-related story that caught my attention. In brief, Topps mistakenly inserted cards into Bowman Draft which weren’t supposed to leave the factory. This is clearly an error and Topps has supposedly admitted as much. The most interesting thing about this SNAFU is that Beckett refused to grade those cards and initially blamed Topps for telling them not to. This resulted in a decent amount of outrage about collusion—especially given Beckett’s subsequent walking back of that note.

The idea that Topps would request that grading companies not grade these makes total sense to me. Mistakes like this could just as easily be backdoored out of a printing facility and that kind of shenanigan is something I can see Topps wanting to explicitly discourage. That said, in my opinion, that principle goes out the window once the card gets pulled out of a circulating pack.

CowboysMilkingWhat I’m fascinated by though is the concept that Topps could disavow a card which was released by mistake—removing it from the catalog by corporate fiat. This is similar to something that has come up in the art world, most famously wth Cady Noland whose disavowal of Cowboys Milking resulted in a number of lawsuits as people tried to recoup invested money and find a way to sell what had become “worthless” overnight. As with the Mantle and Leonardo, the discussion again is one of whether or not an item belongs in the catalog and who’s responsible for maintaining that catalog.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Visual Artists Rights Act applies to baseball cards. I am however noting that between the card companies and the card graders, there’s a real possibility for there to be a similar amount of control in the market for card makers to effectively render some cards as worthless—or at least ungradable—if they were released to the public by mistake.

That getting a card graded is the current standard of authenticity for much of the card market means that explicitly rejecting a card from grading rules it as “inauthentic.” As someone who primarily conceived of card grading as a way of certifying condition and chasing confirmed great-condition cards, this realization shook me. It’s not that I no longer trust graders themselves but rather I’ve found myself questioning our collective trust in them as the arbiters of authenticity—especially given the recent news which makes me wonder how things get into the baseball card catalog.

It’s one thing for us to have a Potter Stewart level discussion about what makes a baseball card a baseball card. It’s another when it appears that two of the most-prominent authorities in the business of authenticating cards demonstrate that they both maintain an official catalog of what counts as a baseball card and that those catalogs can disagree with each other.

So I can’t stop wondering now about what it means when grading companies disagree on an item’s authenticity? Does this stuff get tracked? If another company grades the Topps mistakes does it matter that Topps may have disavowed the cards initially? And what other kinds of production mistakes which shouldn’t have been released could cause a grading rejection?

I don’t know the answers to any of those but it’s where my mind—even though I’m not into card grading—has gone over the past month. I can only imagine how the people who swear by it are thinking.

Author: njwv

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area.

6 thoughts on “Arbiters of authenticity”

  1. This amplifies a point I make to myself all the time. By using a grading company a collector is ceding his or her own appreciation of an artificact to a third party. Instead of “Look at this card, *I* just love it!” people are instead saying “Look at this card, random people I have never met really love it!” I believe something is lost when a collector gives up his agency in this regard.

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    1. I’m good with grading if we’re talking about cards where I honestly don’t know enough about them to decide whether or not they are what they claim to be. Like I’d love to get into pre-war cards but I don’t know enough to determine what’s real and what’s not. And I can see buying graded cards and cracking those cases open so I can learn about them.

      Distilling the card’s”quality” into a number though is anathema to how I collect.

      In any case there are two independent things going on with the grading companies. The “what condition is this” aspect is one I care not a whit about. The “is this ‘real'” question though is extremely interesting and important and seeing the instances where they refuse to answer that question really troubles me.

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  2. Great post, njwv. We shouldn’t dismiss the preservation aspect of card grading (the slabbing part of it, really) and the proof of ownership, as well as the authenticity. I don’t see a heck of lot of difference between a graded 7, 8, 9 or 10. You don’t need a third-party grader to tell you a card is a 2 or 3. Dave Jamison’s “Mint Condition” has a chapter on creating fakes, so obviously authenticity is a problem with pre-war cards. I don’t have the resources to buy any of those, anyway. The fakes with Bucky Harris from the ’59 Fleer Ted Williams (heck, a decent admitted fake was all I could afford) and the ’63 Rose rookie are the only concerns in my price range. Grading can guard against the fakes that don’t admit what they are.

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    1. Yeah like I mentioned in my discussion with Mark above I do appreciate grading as a guard against fakes. It’s just that the situations where they may refuse to grade a card are much less transparent than I’d like to see.

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  3. Seems as though not grading a card is akin to pretending that the cards don’t exist–though I understand the being part of the catalog issue. It reminds me of other things that have been done in sports to pretending that certain events did not happen: in baseball–Buster Posey being awarded the batting title after Melky Cabrera was pinged for steroids and voluntarily gave up the batting title. And in football-pretending that the Baltimore Ravens don’t have lineage to the original Cleveland Browns.

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