Ruining with Scissors

By now you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the various scandals rocking the baseball card world. Any summary I could provide here would be outdated by the time I hit “Publish.” Therefore I will address only one aspect of the scandal, one that to some collectors is no scandal at all: the alteration, restoration, and repairing on cards. (Also see “What Do Baseball Cards Want?” for a related SABR Baseball Cards article.)

I will lead off with an unquestioned assumption I think most collectors have hung their hats on for a while: condition is a one-way street.

True or not, we at least initially presume cards begin in some pristine (or at least best) state from which their condition either stays the same or gets worse over time. Were we to plot the condition of a card continuously over time, we could get what your calculus teacher would have called a monotonically decreasing function.

Where a collector put his cards in bike spokes, pockets, or a rainstorm, condition decreased quickly. Conversely, where a collector used more protection than a Spring Breaker in Tijuana, condition was protected and preserved. However, nothing caused condition to improve. Cosmetic appearance? Yes. Condition? No.

When it comes down to it, the idea that condition is a one-way street is the main reason high-grade cards are so coveted. Some collectors might argue that their value simply comes from looking the nicest. However, I would prop up the near worthlessness of reprints as a counter to that claim.

Take a look at this (aptly named) Hack Wilson, before and after it’s run-in with a paper cutter.

With four well-placed cuts the corners, edges, and centering have all improved, but would you (or anyone) actually pay me more for the card on the right, having watched me create it from the card on the left? Unless your intention was to profit off an unsuspecting collector ignorant of the trimming, I have to imagine you’d either walk away or lower your offer considerably.

Yes, the card may look better, but we know it’s not better. Sure, the contrarians out there might challenge us to explain why size is somehow more important than corners, edges, and centering combined, and when they put it that way we would likely even struggle. Of course the real reason isn’t a reason; it’s an assumption.

Condition is a one-way street. As such, anything significant done to a card automatically and axiomatically makes the card worse. Period. Doubt that, and nearly any discussion of condition or premium on condition becomes farcical.

Condition is a one-way street. Period.

My Grading Experience – PSA 1 (Poor)

When grading hit the hobby in the late 1990’s, it was, for me, a death knell. As a set collector, seeing nice commons get sucked out of the market in raw form put me on a baseball card hiatus that lasted about 15 years (except for my annual sets and some occasional new things that caught my eye). I still don’t like buying graded cards (I crack them out of cases if I happen upon one for a set I’m working on) and I’ve never graded a card. Never, that is, until this past month.

As my friend Greg will tell you, my thoughts on grading my pre-war cards stretches back at least a year or more. I’ve been thinking of selling those off to support my current hobby interests. (Here’s a post from last July, which puts some kind of date on this exercise.)

In a very real sense, my back was against the wall when it came to my George Ruth Candy Company cards. A rash of fakes hit the market at the turn of the century, and, though I listed one of the two I have, it was clear that I’d need to get it graded to alleviate any fears of counterfeiting. PSA won’t grade these cards anymore because of the frauds, but SGC will. I sent off #3, the one I want to sell. It’s a pretty nice looking card, nicer than some I’d seen grade EX. I had high hopes.

Ruth front

Ruth back

To SGC’s credit, they promise a quick turnaround. To their discredit, they didn’t deliver on that promise, and I had to call to find out why it was taking so long to get back. I got good help, and, it was during that conversation, that I found out the grade, a 3, VG.

I couldn’t believe it. Not only is the card now valued much less, but I had to pay about $80.80 (including my priority postage to send it) for the privilege.  The whole ordeal made my stomach hurt.

Still, I had an extremely nice Ty Cobb Sweet Caporal Domino Disc to look forward to grading, this time by PSA. I searched around and found some EX ones that sold for well over $1,000, and I was at least in that condition ballpark. While PSA cost less SGC, $49.80, they take longer.

I checked the PSA site often, almost daily, and the card was in processing for a long time. Finally, the grade appeared – PSA 4 (VGEX). I was appalled.

I was once told “Buy the card, not the grade.” That’s good advice, but getting lower (though still good) grades feels terrible. Not only will I end up with less money via sales, but the grades have affected how I feel about these cards. Though I made the intellectual decision to sell them, I enjoy (enjoyed) having these, especially the Cobb, which I loved. Not anymore. Now it feels lousy and I don’t know what to do moving forward. I really would prefer not to have my other pre-war cards graded, but I wonder if I can sell them at a fair price without that. It’s a trap and, for a Katz, I feel pretty mousy.

Overall, it was a Pretty Shitty Adventure. I can’t give it a worse grade than that.

What do Baseball Cards Want?

There was a bit of an interesting discussion/freak out on card twitter this week over a restored T206 Honus Wagner card. Restoring in this case involves cleaning the card front and back, replacing the trimmed borders with material from other T206 cards, and filling in missing pigments.

Predictably and understandably, many collectors were appalled and outraged at this. We, as a group, tend to treat our cards as items whose aging must be arrested. We lock them away inside increasingly-secure plastic holders and handle them with kid gloves on the rare occasions that we look at them.* The idea of modifying a card by accident—let alone on purpose—is anathema to the collecting ethos and immediately makes people suspect malicious intent or ignorance.

*One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this SABR group is how frequently it champions the use of cards. Sorting and re-resorting things. Changing the contest in which they’re displayed, etc. etc.

So there were lots of reactions about how this is destroying the card. Or how it was no longer worth anything. Or how it was setting up the opportunity for someone to defraud an unsuspecting buyer.

My reaction though was one of excitement as this represents one of those occasions when baseball cards cross over into the art world. The issue of art restorations is one that’s fascinated me for a long time; the first thing I did was re-read Rebecca Mead’s wonderful New Yorker piece, remind myself of all the different ways that we’ve both “preserved” and “restored” items in the past, and think about what it means for us to have invested so much money and/or emotional weight in small pieces of printed cardboard.

“People always ask, ‘Who do you feel responsible to?’ If a collector comes in and says, ‘I want to have a piece fixed this way,’ do you do it as the collector wants it, or as the artist wants it? I always say we are responsible to the art work, not to the artist or to the collector.”

—Christian Scheidemann

Centering the discussion on the card itself allows me to really think about what restoring does and what it means to restore a card. I proceeded to jump down a rabbit hole and read posts about when museums have chosen to restore objects.* When they haven’t.** Plus discussions about how restoration is really a commitment to having to maintain the artwork over the course of its lifetime.***

*MoMA’s restoration of a Jackson Pollock is interesting in how it addresses previous restoration efforts as well as emphasizing the fact that the restoration is not intended to make the painting new but rather let it show its age while taking care of it and stabilizing the artwork.

**I found myself thinking especially about Cleveland’s bombed (literally) copy of The Thinker here.

***SFMOMA’s post about its “unconventional” approach to Barry McGee’s work is a great read.

In everything I read it was clear that restoring artwork is about balancing the immediate health of the item with its long-term prospects while keeping it “true” to itself. Restoring an old item so it looks brand new is not the point. It should appear old and reflect its history without looking like it’s going to fall apart.

Interventions should also be obvious without being distracting. The goal is to make it clear that things have been mended yet foreground the original piece. This is a delicate balance and is the reason why the restoration cannot be thought of as one-off fix. The item will continue to age along with the restoration and there’s no way for anyone to know for sure how their relationship will work in another 50 years.

All this makes a lot of sense for me when it comes to trying to preserve an item that’s been kept in reasonably good condition. It’s less relevant for items which are heavily damaged—such as the T206 Wagner in question. Sure, the question of being true to the item still remains. But which truth? The item as it was originally or the item as it’s become today?

Comic books have already ventured into this territory with restoration companies bragging about the level of restoration they can accomplish. The restored Wagner is very much in a similar vein. As much as I appreciate that it wasn’t restored to look pack-fresh and instead still looks like the century-old card that it is, something about doing that much addition just doesn’t sit right with me. The damage is part of the history of the card and obscuring that feels dishonest.

I found myself returning to a post The Getty made about how to display a collection of vase fragments since it points at a middle way of restoring a piece. While representing a much more extreme example of damage, the final restoration suggests the finished original while also being clear about what’s original and what’s new.

*The Getty’s post has more detail but lacks the side-by-side comparison that the Tumblr post has.

This approach is one that I feel would work great for damaged baseball cards where instead of rebuilding the trimmed areas and missing pigment so things look perfect, the restored areas were called out by using neutral pigments or a slightly-differently-toned paper. We would still be able to appreciate the card in its complete state while also being able to see how the original was altered over the years.

On the other hand, all the cleaning and soaking to remove dirt and accreted material—specifically the paper glued to the back—is something I’m still struggling with. Much of that material contains a lot of information about how the card has been used over the years and I hate to get rid of it. It’s good to know how it had been displayed before (in this case, pasted into an album) and be reminded that every generation’s best practices will likely give a subsequent generation hives.

There’s also always the risk of removing too much material. There’s a long history of over-cleaning objects in art world.* Even in sportsland the Hall of Fame just recently underwent a massive restoration project on its Conlon photos which, while it cleans up the photos, completely obliterated the history of how those photos had been used in print.

*Sometimes by accident. Other times, such as with removing all the paint from Greek and Roman sculptures, on purpose.

Do I know how I’d want to restore a damaged card like the Wagner? Of course not. Nor do I fully trust anyone with a single concrete answer as to the best solution. The discussion and thought experiment about how different approaches could help or hurt our understanding though is one which I’ve enjoyed and hope to see continue in the comments here.

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.

What’s good about grading and slabbing

From the posts I’ve read (and I read ’em all. It’s great being retired), more than a few members of this group don’t think much of card slabbing. I have plenty of ungraded cards, but I admit that I have my favorite sets encased in plastic by PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator, as I imagine most of you know). I don’t especially like how PSA dominates the grading market, but I do appreciate, as self-serving for PSA as it is, the set registry. You can list your cards, even your ungraded cards, by the way, on the registry for free, even if you are not one of the PSA “Collectors Club,” members.

The basic advantages, from my standpoint, of slabbing is preservation of condition,  a record of ownership (each card has a certification number) and, to a lesser degree, an assurance of quality — this applies mainly when you are buying a card. If you’re buying a card online, you’re trusting the seller’s description, no matter how good the scan looks. And I don’t find having the card in a plastic slab a distraction or detraction.

Is it worth it? That depends. If you submit cards directly, rather than through a dealer, you generally have to fork over $6 or more to get PSA to grade a card, and that’s if you use the changing offers of the Collectors Club ($100 or more year but with a few free gradings and a monthly magazine), often having to send in at least 25 cards at a time. And the return shipping charge starts at a minimum of $18. But I get most of my PSA cards on ebay or from dealers, which keeps me from going bankrupt.

When I submit cards to PSA, I’m often disappointed at the grades, although I have become better at knowing what will drag a grade level down. Honestly, it’s still hard for me to tell the difference between a PSA 8 and a PSA 10. I assume most of us here would consider an “EX 5”  to be a pretty nice card, too. I have a bunch of ’64 Topps that are 5s, and I’m perfectly happy with them. On the other hand, my 1984 Topps set, which ranks no. 2 on the registry, has only 9s and 10s. Once you get out of the ’70s, you probably would not want a slabbed card with a grade less than 9, although you should be able to get those lower grades for next to nothing.

I suppose there are people who view graded cards as an investment. (I’m not one of them.) Certainly, graded cards command higher prices than their ungraded equivalents.

I’m not trying to convince anybody to have his or her cards graded, but it’s good to keep an open mind about it. Collectors like me are glad there are collectors like everyone else with SABR who still loves baseball cards — slabbed or not.

Ponder This

I want to remind everyone that this blog is part of SABR’s Baseball Cards Committee.  I urge any of you slackers to join SABR , an organization filled with lots of great groups like this one, people who love to talk about (obsess over) biographies, records, the Negro Leagues, the 19th Century, statistics, poetry, board games, and dozens more.  You are free to join any or all of these groups, and you are free to start your own.  This group started last fall because Chris Dial and I said, “Hey, I wonder if anyone would be interested in a Baseball Cards committee?” Yes, in turns out.

After less than four months of work, this is our 100th post — a pretty fine output for a bunch of part-timers. I want to stress that this blog does not take an editorial position on what people should collect, or how people should collect.  I have my likes and dislikes, and I am one of the more active posters, but the only thing keeping your favorite sets (or your favorite collecting habits) from getting their due is that you aren’t writing about it.

So step right up!

If you are a frequent blog reader, you might have noticed an annoying tendency to write disrespectfully about high-end collecting: extreme grade-sensitive cards, using grading services, and storing cards in lifeless albums and blocks of plastic.  Qui, moi?

s-l1600

If I am guilty of anything, it is that I want to spread the message that high-end collecting is not the only game in town.  I would suggest that the rise of grading services and condition-sensitive collecting drove a lot of people, people that didn’t want to spend $125 for this Jim Davenport card, out of the hobby.  One of the reasons I was motivated to start this committee and blog was to show people that you don’t have to be rich to collect and enjoy your childhood hobby.  (I have heard from many of these people in the past few months.)

Put away the price guide for a second and find out what cards you actually like, and how you enjoy your cards.  That’s what we want to blog about.  (You can buy a perfectly excellent 1965 Davenport for $5, and for $10 you can get one that would require a magnifying glass to find its flaws.)  If you like collecting high-end graded cards, great, write a post about it and we’ll run it.

Thought of the day: “Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ would be such a cool painting, but two of the frame corners are chipped, so meh.”

So: if you want to want to build a set of 1961 Topps, all Near Mint, knock yourself out. If you don’t have 100 grand laying around, there is still a place for you in the hobby.

The card below would run you about $50 because (oh, the horror) it is only in “EX-MT” condition.  The Davenport above, I remind you, is $125.

s-l1600 (1)

Ponder this question.  If you woke up tomorrow and every baseball card in the world was suddenly worth 10% of what it is worth today, would this make you happy?  Your collection just lost 90% of its value — that is horrible!

Despite a sizeable collection of vintage cards, I would be thrilled.  I like getting more and different cards, and in this alternative universe I would be able to afford a lot cards that I can’t afford now.  This would be wonderful.

I have read blog posts that “review” old card sets, and I am struck by how often I read: “A fine attractive set filled with stars, but the lack of a tough high number series drags the set down a bit for most collectors.”  In other words, the set is less popular because the cards aren’t expensive enough.  Pardon my French, but WTF?

My message is: if you like baseball cards, there is a place for you.  Collect the cards you like.  And for God’s sake, play with them.

 

 

What Authenticity Is: It’s Truth in Advertising

Though collectors of collectibles, art and memorabilia sometimes consider the definition of term “authenticity” to be an esoteric term for theoretical discussion and ‘How many angels can stand on a pinhead?’ chatboard debate, it is surprisingly simple and straightforward.  Thus, this simple and straightforward post.

In all areas of collecting, from trading cards to oil paintings to ancient artifacts, something is authentic if its true identity is described accurately and sincerely.  There is truth in advertising.  Whether it is an eBay listing or the placard label next to a painting in a museum, the description of the item matches what the item really is.  It is as simple as that.

If you pay good money for an “original 1930 Babe Ruth photograph by legendary photographer Charles Conlon” you expect to receive an original 1930 Babe Ruth photo by Charles Conlon. You do not  expect a 1970 reprint or a photo by a different photographer.

An item does not have to be rare, expensive or old to be authentic. It just has to be accurately and sincerely described. A 2 cent 2013 reprint is authentic if described as a 2 cent 2013 reprint.  

I use the word ‘sincerely’ to give no excuse to sellers who try to pull the wool over the potential buyers’ eyes with intentionally confusing, ambiguous, vague or/or diverting language in an attempt to sell something they know is a reprint. One can both be “technically correct” and deceptive– and judges in false advertising cases are the first to know this.

Errors in the description of an item are considered significant when they significantly affect the financial value or reasonable non-financial expectations of the buyer. An example of the reasonable non-financial expectations would involve a collector who specializes in real photo post cards of her home state of Iowa and makes it crystal clear to the seller that she only wants postcards depicting Iowa. Even if there is no financial issue, she would have reason to be disappointed if the purchased postcard turned out to show Oklahoma or Minnesota.

Many errors in description are minor and have little to no material effect. If that 1930 Babe Ruth photo turns out to be from 1933, it may not affect the financial value or desirability to the purchaser.  Some would call this “No harm, no foul.”

Common terms:

Counterfeit: a reprint or reproduction that was intentionally made to fool others into believing it is original.

Forgery: an item that was intentionally made to fool others into believing it is something it is not. This includes counterfeits, but also fantasy or made up items. An example of a fantasy would be a 1958 Bowman Mickey Mantle. Bowman did not make baseball cards after 1955, so a 1958 Bowman Mantle never existed.

Fake: an item that is seriously misidentified. This includes forgeries and counterfeits. It also includes items, even original items, that are innocently but badly misidentified by collectors or sellers who are uninformed.

When in doubt about seller’s or maker’s intent, it is best to call a bad sale or auction item a fake instead of a forgery or counterfeit. All three words mean an item is not genuine, but forgery and counterfeit implies intentional illegality.