AM vs FM

In my Topps Archives Snapshots post I had to write about duotones and include a brief note about how printing works in general. I’ve come to realize that this should be a much longer post of its own. I’m not enough of an expert on pre-war cards to cover the way they were printed,* the post-war era where cards are mainly printed with process inks and offset lithography is pretty standard.

*While I can write about photography on old cards, printing is much harder to discuss without being able to actually see the card under a loupe.

CMYK Process

Printing at its basic level involves putting pigment on paper. We’ve standardized to using CMYK process—four different ink colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK—in order generate all the other colors. Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are the official versions of the blue, red, and yellow primary colors we all learned in grade school (black is referred to as K because many people will refer to cyan as “blue”). Any color can be broken into CMY components or separations. Because of the nature of how the inks don’t combine into a true black and how putting three full layers of ink on a piece of paper can cause issues with drying or wrinkling or sticking, we also use a distinct black separation to provide the full contrast and tonal range of the image.

The black separation in particular is also very useful for text as text will be printed in just black ink, often overprinting the other colors so there aren’t any issues with registering it and it’s easy and crisp to read.

This is why when the black separation is missing or damaged we have variations like the 1990 Frank Thomas missing name or the 1982 no-autograph cards. Those are technically print defects which would normally indicate a below-grade card that should’ve been destroyed in the factory. However, due to the nature of how the black separation behaves, they ended up being desirable errors because they only look like printing mistakes to those of us who are print geeks.

The black separation is also one of the common tells of a forged card. It’s very difficult to generate the correct black separation from a scan so black text on forgeries is frequently printed as CMYK instead of just black. The results are often obvious due to the absence of a crisp black edge on the text when you look closely.

Spot colors

Sometimes the card design will use what’s called a spot color in addition to (or instead of) the process colors. Topps’s card backs until 1992 were always printed as spot colors. The silver inks used on early-1990s Leaf are a spot color. The neon orange in the logo on early-1990s Stadium Club is also a spot color. The border colors in a lot of early 2000s Topps cards are spot colors.

Usually spot colors are printed at 100% and used to create a solid color which either can’t be printed with CMYK process (like metallics or fluorescents) or which if printed in CMYK would be hard to keep consistent over multiple print runs (eg 2001 Topps and that grey-green border). Sometimes though they’re used for images and photos. If it’s used by itself the result is called a monotone. If it’s mixed with other colors—typically black—we have a duotone (or tritone, etc. depending on how many inks are being used).

Duotones can either look like tinted black and white images or they can look truly black and white with more depth and contrast. Each ink you add allows for additional levels of depth and contrast in the resulting photos.

The downside with spot colors is that each one you use requires a special setup on the press. Process inks are standard and you can go from one job to the next pretty easily. Spot inks? You have to set up another print station before running the job and thoroughly clean it up before you can move on to the next one.

Screening

Which brings us to screening. While the rise of spot inks through the 1990s and 2000s is noteworthy, one of the biggest changes in recent years has been that the pattern of dots used to print the cards has changed. I did a quick loupe at my cards and found that until 2008 traditional screening was pretty universal.

Traditional screening involves lines of dots which create a pattern called a rosette on the printed page. Since the size of each dot is what changes the color traditional screens are also called AM (Amplitude Modulation just like on the radio).

After 2008, Topps increasingly used Stochastic screening. Stochastic screening is unpatterned small dots where the number of dots changes the darkness of the color. Yup this is also called FM (Frequency Modulation) screening. Because it’s only really doable with computer-generated printing plates there’s a reason it only started showing up en masse in the late 2000s.

FM screening results in images which look more like photographs and are less prone to showing misregistration. It allows printers to use less ink and is generally a higher-quality result. The downside? It does weird things (to my eye) in graphic elements like lines or solid blocks of color because the random dots are more visible there.

Anyway, I’d made the assumption that by now Topps was printing everything with FM screens. Then, when I was looking at some of my cards with a loupe* I discovered I was wrong and went down the rabbit hole of louping ALL of my 2017 Topps cards.

*I was curious how they were printing the black and white cards as well as some of the monotone-looking parallels.

Since that rabbit hole was too good for me to keep to myself, here it is on blog form for everyone else to enjoy too. My apologies for the fact that these are almost all Giants cards but it’s what I collect and most of these products are not interesting to me outside of those cards.

Flagship

Flagship

Flagship_PoseyScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

We’ll start with flagship since I always refer to it as the card of record. This crop shows exactly what to expect from FM screening. Lots of random dots which are all the same size. No crisp edge on the graphic elements.

You can see the distinct CMYK dots in the mix here and how what looks like a neutral grey color in in fact made up of multiple different colors.

Opening Day

OD

OD_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Opening day is exactly like Flagship. I considered excluding it from this post but I realized I should include it once I saw Chrome. Anyway in this crop you can tell how not even the white section of the design is completely without printing.

Chrome

Chrome

Chrome_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

This surprised me. A lot. I found myself wondering is the chrome paper couldn’t be printed with FM screening. Anyway, the crop is from about the same portion of the card as the crop of Opening Day and demonstrates how different the dot pattern is.

You can see the halftone rosettes and how crisp the edge of the graphic is here. You can also see how regular the ink pattern is in the graphic elements. And you can see how the dots change size depending on the darkness of the image.

Heritage

Heritage

Heritage_CrawfordScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

That Topps uses FM screens for Heritage is one of the reasons why I thought they were using it everywhere. The rosette pattern is part of the look of old printing. It’s what we expect to see and there’s something comfortable about it. Topps even recognizes this and has been adding it back in to the Heritage photos. That grid in the sky is designed to look like a halftone rosette and be part of the retro feel of this set. Rather than being a rosette though in the crop you can see it’s just denser clusters of cyan dots.

Archives

Archives

Archives_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Topps isn’t faking the rosette pattern here but you can still see how different FM screening is in the solids. On the original 1960 cards most of the bright colors are solid and won’t show any dots. The red for example should be 100% magenta + 100% yellow and as a result look totally smooth. You won’t see any random blue or black dots in it.

Similarly the 1960 design would be a traditional black-only screen for the small photo. With the FM screen however you can see that it consists of the other process colors too.

Allen & Ginter

AG

AG_PenceScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Where Heritage and Archives are copying cards from the 1960s, Ginter is aping a look from over a century ago. Those cards predate the standard CMYK process colors and were often printed in many more inks.

That they also predate traditional screening and are artifacts that many of us are not entirely familiar with gives Topps a bit more leeway here. The oval graphic and the text are not in the crop but neither of them are printed in solid ink the way they would’ve been a century ago. I chose instead to crop a section which shows how the blue ink splash in the background  has a pattern which is meant to look like engraving lines in it.

Gipsy Queen

GQ

GQ_SamardzijaScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

I’ve not much to say about Gipsy Queen except to point out how the FM screen makes up the graphic elements. The lack of a crisp edge really bothers me although with thin curly elements like these a traditional screen isn’t the best choice either. Ideally these would be in their own spot color but that’s a lot more setup than I’d expect from Topps.

Bunt

Bunt

Bunt_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

Another with traditional screening, I was not surprised to see it in a low-end product. The orange panel in this crop really shows off exactly why we call traditional screens “line screens.” The patterns of dots are all set in a grid, each color at a 30° difference from the others (yellow is 15° off) so as to minimize moiré. It’s these 30° angles which create the rosette pattern.

Bunt_Blue

Bunt_Blue_CrawfordScreening: Traditional
Colors: Cyan, Black, spot blue tritone

The Bunt blue parallels are very interesting. I think they‘re tritones. I also think that Topps is using two of the process colors and only adding one new color to the mix. But it’s hard to tell for sure.

I can see that the black dots are at a distinct angle from the blue dots. And I think there are two distinct shades of blue in this image. Anyway this is an example of what non-process inks look like up close.

Stadium Club

SC

SC_SpanScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

I was surprised to se that Stadium Club uses a traditional screen since it’s supposed to be the photo-centric product. That it still looks great shows how little a difference this stuff can make to the naked eye.

Still that Stadium Club might have have looked even better with FM screening is something to wonder about.

SC_Sepia

SC_Sepia_SpanScreening: Stochastic
Colors: Spot Sepia monotone

The Sepia Parallels though are printed completely differently. Compare this to the crop of Bunt and it’s worlds different. The FM screen here makes the sepia parallels look a bit more photograph-like than they would if they were printed in a traditional monotone. And the way that Topps has gone with a lower-contrast look means that the single ink isn’t limiting.

SC_Grey

SC_WilliamsScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

One more Stadium Club note. There are a number of “black and white” cards in the set. None of the are actually black and white. As is visible in the crop they’re all printed in all four colors and have been carefully balanced so the results look neutral.

Archives Snapshots

TAS_C

TAS_BaergaScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

As with Stadium Club, it’s a bit disappointing to see these printed traditionally. Although as a more nastlagia-feeling product the line screens here aren’t out of place. Also, with the crisper graphics, even while they’re small, the traditional screens are preferable. I still wish it were easy to do FM screens for the photos only and let traditional screens do the rest of the graphics.

TAS_BW

TAS_GlasnowScreening: Traditional
Colors: Black and grey duotone

And a proper duotone. Where Bunt is heavily tinted and the black and white Stadium Clubs are really just process, the Archives Snapshots black and white cards are printed with black and a neutral grey ink. This gives the images a much-better tonal range of good shadows and highlight detail while still maintaining midtones and contrast.

The crop is indeed in color. I chose this particular section because you can make out the distinct screens by the angles of the dots. Other sections are more interesting under a loupe but on screen it’s nearly impossible to see the different inks.

Rolling my own

1987 was my first full year as a baseball fan. After attending my first Giants game in 1986, despite the ridiculousness of the game—16-innings including the Giants using pitchers as outfielders and switching them between left and right field depending on the batters’ platoon splits—I ended up a hard core Giants fan the following year. That the Giants were actually good for the first time in anyone’s memory certainly helped. As did the fact that 1987 was also the year I got bitten bigtime by the baseball card bug.

That fall when the Giants won the Western Division* my local paper, The San Jose Mercury News, celebrated by printing cartoony baseball “cards” of the entire team on the back page of the sports section. It was a pretty silly thing. Cheap newsprint. The card backs were just whatever was on the previous page of the newspaper. But I was undeterred.

*30 years later I still instinctually think of the Reds, Astros, and Braves as the Giants’ rivals even though they’re no longer in the same division nor, in the Astos’ case, the same league.

DSC_0009 DSC_0011

I scrounged some old vertical file folders from my parents, brushed on glue, and carefully laid the newspaper onto cardstock. I still remember carefully brushing the bubbles out before the glue dried. Later in the day once the glue had dried, I busted out my scissors and turned that cheap newsprint into real cards.

30 years later and I’m a bit surprised that these are in as good shape as are. Yes, of course I kept these in binders. But newsprint isn’t the most archival of materials and there was no guarantee I’d selected an appropriate glue. I probably just grabbed a bottle of Elmer’s but it’s not like I knew what I was doing when I was nine.

DSC_0010 DSC_0012

The best part of these cards is the backs though. Besides being woefully uncreative—I had, after all, only been collecting cards for under a year—it’s an interesting snapshot into what I felt was important on a card back at the time. Yes, I also remember being fascinated with all the statistics but that would’ve been outside of my lettering ability at the time. But I felt very strongly about knowing a player’s position and recording the team/year information that the card represents.

It’s also very clear that I believed that a baseball card should be part of a numbered set. I have no idea how I chose to number these, but not only did I number them, that’s the order I sleeved them in my album.

DSC_0013 DSC_0015
DSC_0014 DSC_0016

I was apparently not the only burgeoning baseball card collector who received The Merc at home. These cards got such a reception that a few days later they reappeared on the back of the sports page—this time in color and with proper backs. Or, well, sort of proper backs. It looks like something produced by a newspaper whose priorities are creating readable copy using the existing house style. I do however love the optimism of including a line for autographs. Even today I don’t know what pen I’d choose for that task.

Anyway, I went ahead and turned the new series into cards too. Same method only I had to both procure a second copy of the paper and figure out how to register the two sides for gluing.

I wish I could remember how I accomplished the registration.

DSC_0005-2 DSC_0007-2
DSC_0006-2 DSC_0008-2

The following year when the A’s won their first pennant in over a decade The Merc celebrated the same way. This time though the cards were oversize—closer to the pre-1957 Topps size—and, while they were printed in color the first time around, they never got any backs.

So, as someone whose first exposure to cards the late 1980s with backs that stayed the same year after year, I went ahead and used the same template for my hand-pencilled backs that I’d used the previous year.

Productionwise though I no longer used vertical files. My parents encouraged me to find a cheaper source of card stock so these are, I think, on reclaimed cereal boxes. This resulted in way thicker cards and produced the nice side benefit of encouraging me to use a paper cutter instead of scissors. Where the 1987 cards have all janky hand-cut edges, these 1988s are nice and square.

Alas, The Mercury News never made any more cards. The following year’s Bay Bridge Series had plenty of other things for them to print commemorative back pages of and by the time the Giants returned to the World Series in 2002 the baseball card bubble had imploded. But I’m happy these were around right at the beginning of my collecting and I love rediscovering them both in how they’ve survived and how they suggest possible projects for my sons to try as they flirt with the hobby.

Are CDVs and Cabinet Cards Baseball Cards? Yes, No and Maybe

This post contains assorted topics on CDVs and Cabinet Cards, baseball card proofs, a curious Honus Wagner fake,  essential tips for beginning collectors, and a common misdating caused by collector psychology.

Are CDVs and Cabinet Cards Baseball Cards? The Answer is Yes, No and Maybe

Though personal definitions may change in detail from collector to collector, the general definition of a baseball card (short for baseball trading card) is a card (look up the dictionary definition) with a baseball theme that was commercially issued, or at least intended to be commercially issued, as a collectible for the general public.  The commercial part means they were sold as a product in and of itself (such as with today’s cards), with a product (Topps and gum, T206s in packs of cigarettes) or otherwise in relationship to a product, service or similar (premiums, advertising trade cards, etc).

As you see, a baseball card is not defined just by its physical makeup, but its useage nature and intent. Even though it fits any dictionary’s definition of a physical card, no one I know considers a baseball player’s business card to be a baseball trading card. 

All this leads to baseball cartes de visite (often referred to by the acronym CDVs), cabinet cards and similar early photo cards.  These 1800s to early 1900s photo cards (a paper photograph affixed to a cardboard backing) fit the physical definition of card.   Baseball CDVs in particular look very much look like baseball cards.

The second question of the trading card equation is if CDVs and cabinet cards fit the commercial issue for general public collecting definition of a trading card.  The answer here is some do, some don’t and for many the answer is unknown and unknowable.

CDVs and cabinet cards were just standard photograph formats and were made for different purposes. Some were indeed used by tobacco and other companies as premiums or advertisements, and some were sold directly to the public as collectibles.  For these, there is the advertising right on the cards and/or we know how their distribution history.  Collecting commercially issued CDVs of celebrities, from Abraham Lincoln to Prince Albert, was a popular hobby in the Victorian era.

Old Judge Cigarettes cabinet card with advertising on front
Old Judge Cigarettes cabinet card with advertising on front

Most of the baseball CDVs and cabinet cards, however, were family or personal photos not issued to the general public.  If you find a CDV or cabinet card of a high school or college baseball player or town ball team, it was more than probably a family photo or similar.  Even many card photos of star Major League players were made for personal, private use of the player or teams.  By the trading card definition, these are not baseball cards.  Collectible and often valuable, sure, but not trading cards.

A problem for those who like things to be well defined and to fit into air tight categorizes is that for some of the

Family photo cabinet card of a young player
Family photo cabinet card of a young player

old baseball photo cards it is not know how they were issued.  They may be of a famous early team or player and made by a well known photography studio, but it is unknown if it was made for the player or team’s personal use, or as a collectible sold to the public.  Baseball card collectors tend to like clear cut answers, but, in the area of early baseball photographs and ephemera, things are often ambiguous and murky.  

This in part explains why determining what card is the first card is impossible and a never ending debate.  Beyond the debates over a card’s exact date of origin, whether or not it really depicts baseball and the fact that there are likely early photo cards yet to be uncovered, it is often impossible to know if the card was a commercially issued item for the general public or a photo made as a personal memento for the player or team.  We can make intelligent guesses, but the are still guesses.  I half-jokingly call this area of eternal debate ‘baseball card theory.’  

1869 Peck & Snider Cincinnati Reds card
1869 Peck & Snider Cincinnati Reds card

This also explains why, even though there are earlier baseball CDVs and card photographs, the Peck & Snyders are still considered by many to the first known baseball cards (emphasis on the word known, as in known to be).   Unlike earlier photo cards, it is known that the Peck & Snider Reds were used for commercial purposes and issued as general public collectibles.  Some have advertising on back and we know that some were sold through Peck & Snyder’s mail order catalog.

* * * *

Authentic Colors?

Uncolored 1874 Harper's Woodcut of the Philadelphia A's including a young Cap Anson (bottom right)
Uncolored 1874 Harper’s Woodcut of the Philadelphia A’s including a young Cap Anson (bottom right)

1800s Harper’s Woodcuts, or woodcut prints from the popular New York magazine Harper’s Weekly, are popularly collected today. The images show nineteenth century life, including sports, US Presidents and other celebrities, war, high society, nature and street life.  The woodcuts of baseball are popular with vintage baseball card and memorabilia collectors due to the images of famous early players and teams, including Cap Anson, King Kelly, Billy Sunday and the 1869 Cincinnati Reds.  

Though issued in black and white, some of the prints have been hand colored over the years by the owners. As age is important to collectors, prints that were colored in the 1800s are more valuable than those colored recently.

The problem is that modern ideas lead collectors to misdate the coloring. Due to their notions about the old fashioned Victorian era, most people automatically assume that vintage 1800s coloring will be subtle, soft, pallid and conservative. However, 1800s coloring was typically bright, gaudy, bold and even tacky to modern taste. As Victorian people did not have color televisions, motion pictures or video games, and were restricted in their travel (and paint choices), they liked their images of exotic places and faraway celebrities to be colored bold and exciting. A learned forger might knowingly use historically incorrect colors, as he knows the average person today would consider authentic 1800s coloring to be fake.

The subtle, soft colors on this 1874 Harper's Woodcut are modern
The subtle, soft colors on this 1874 Harper’s Woodcut are modern

My work and research as an art and artifact scholar is in two areas: authentication and theory (psychology and philosophy of perception and interpretation, etc).  They are usually two distinctly separate areas, but this is a case where they overlap.  The misdating of the colors on these collectibles is a matter of cognitive biases.  I have used the above woodcut colors example in both collector’s guides and cognitive psychology texts.

* * * *

A Fake Honus Wagner card with an interesting history

freeman

From time to time one sees offered for sale this Freeman Cigar Co. Card depicting Honus (Hans) Wagner. Though usually sold as vintage, it is a modern fantasy card.

There are authentic early 1900s Hans Wagner cigar tobacco labels designed to be affixed to cigar boxes. The labels are rare, and come in various designs. The most expensive examples are usually offered by major auction houses or dealers.  In similar fashion to the T206 Wagner, this brand of tobacco was apparently never issued to the public. All the labels known to exist were not used.  One of the labels has a close design to this fake card.

About 1993, a manufacture of collectible tin signs (all those Ted Williams Moxie and Joe Jackson H & B reprints) made a sign based on the design of the just mentioned tobacco label. This man was selling the signs as modern collectibles, not representing themselves as vintage. The sign was not an exact copy of the label. He added the ‘5 Cent Cigar’ text at the bottom for artistic balance. He also he used a different text font in parts because he could not find a modern duplicate of the original.

A numbers of years later a man used a computer printer to reprint the tin signs as the tobacco cards, roughing and scuffing the cards to make them appear old. He sold them at flea markets to unsuspecting collectors who knew the legend of Honus Wagner and thought they had struck gold.

When shown a picture of one of the cards, the tin sign maker himself said it could not be genuine as it had his 1993 design.

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Essential Tips for Beginning Collectors of Most Anything

Pick a card, any card. They're all cheap reprints.
Pick a card, any card. They’re all cheap reprints.

While experienced collectors may already know most of the following tips, I get many inquiries from total beginners, including many who have gotten burned by buying fakes. Considering this, I think it’s a good thing to periodically bring out my age old “Essential Tips for Beginning Collectors of Most Anything.”  I’ve used this list, and variations of it, in numerous of my collecting and authentication books:

Whether it involves trading cards, celebrity autographs, movie posters, fine art prints, postcards or antique figurines, collecting can be good clean fun for boys and girls of all ages. However, all areas of collecting have problems.  The following is a brief but important list of tips that the beginner should read before jumping into a hobby with open pocketbook.

1) Start by knowing that there are reprints, counterfeits, fakes and scams out there. If you start by knowing you should be doing your homework, having healthy skepticism of sellers’ grand claims and getting second opinions, you will be infinitely better off than the beginner who assumes everything is authentic and all sellers are honest.

2) Learn all you can about material you wish to collect and the hobby in general. The more you learn and more experience you have, the better off you are. Most forgers and scammers aren’t trying to fool the knowledgeable. They’re trying to make a quick buck from the ignorant. Besides, half the fun of collecting is learning about the material and its history.

3) Realize that novices in any area of collecting are more likely to overestimate, rather than underestimate the value of items they own or are about to buy.

4) Get second opinions and seek advice when needed. This can range from a formal opinion from a top expert to input from a collecting friend. Collectors, including experienced collectors, who seek advice and input are almost always better off than those who are too proud or embarrassed to ask questions.

5) Start by buying inexpensive items. Put off the thousands dollar Babe Ruth baseball cards and Elvis Presley autographs for another day.

Without exception, all beginners make mistakes, as that is a natural part of learning. From paying too much to misjudging rarity to buying fakes or reprints. It only makes sense that a collector should want to make the inevitable beginner’s mistakes on $10 rather that $5,000 purchases.

6) Gather a list of good sellers. A good seller is someone who is knowledgeable and honest. A good seller fixes a legitimate problem when it arises and has a good authenticity guarantee and return policy.

It is fine to perfectly fine to purchase a $9 trading card or piece of memorabilia from an eBay stranger, but it is best to buy expensive and rare items online from good sellers, including those you have dealt with or those who otherwise have strong reputations.

Ask other collectors who they like.  Discover good sellers on your own by buying a few inexpensive items from an eBay seller and seeing how good are the transactions.  The seller you bought that $9 item from may be added to your list of good sellers.

7) If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

 

* * * *

When in doubt assume a baseball card is not a proof

The trading card hobby puts a premium on proof cards. Proofs are pre-production test cards the card printers use to check graphics and text before the final print run. Antique card proofs are often blank backed, sometimes on different stock than the final cards, often with hand cut borders and little pencil written crosses on the borders. Proofs sell for good money as they are rare and offer a look at the creation of the cards.

The collector should be aware that many cards resembling that proofs are not proofs. The manufacturers sometimes accidentally printed cards with blank backs and inserted them into the packs of gum or tobacco. As a kid I pulled a blank backed card from a Topps pack. These are not proofs, but printing errors.

There are also ‘cards’ that were long ago scissors cut from vintage advertising posters, tobacco albums and kids’ notebooks. As these cutouts have hand cut borders, blank backs and different than normal stocks, they are often mistakenly called proofs.

Collectors will also come across printer’s scraps, often of T206 baseball cards. These scraps came from a printer’s rejected sheet, often with

T206 scrap with printing error and handcut
T206 scrap with printing error and handcut

poorly printed images, bad color registration and other graphics problems– which is why it was rejected, or scrapped, by the printer. These rejected sheets were rescued from the trash bin by workers, often to be taken home for the kids. The individual scrap cards that we see today were hand cut from the sheets. As the cards are hand cut, often oversized and usually with printing defects, they are often mistaken for proofs. As with the above mentioned blank backed cards, scraps are simply factory mistakes.

As you can see there are lots of non-proof cards that resemble proofs. When in doubt it is best to bid on an unusual card assuming it is not a proof, because it likely is not. Scraps and other printing mistakes are collectible, but are much more plentiful and inexpensive than genuine proofs.

 

Using a Black Light in Baseball Card Authentication

This article shows methods for using an inexpensive black light in the authentication and fake detection of baseball cards and related ephemera. 

For card collectors, black light is primarily used with Pre-World War II cards because it can identify modern paper and cardstock and, thus, modern reprints and fakes of Pre-War cards. However, as this article shows, black light is also useful when examining modern items.

What is a black light and how does it work?

A black light is a light, often resembling a little flashlight, that gives off longwave ultraviolet light. The common nickname for longwave UV is black light. A black light allows the collector to see things invisible in normal daylight.

Ultraviolet light and black light are outside of the human’s visible spectrum, meaning it cannot be seen by human eyes. However, in a dark room materials can fluoresce (glow) under black light. Most of us have experienced black lights that make the whites on our shirts or shoes or rock posters glow brightly. Some materials fluoresce brightly, some not at all and the rest somewhere in between. The fluorescence varies in color. Under ultraviolet light, minerals, plastics, paints and antique glass can fluoresce red, yellow, green, purple, white and orange.

Without going much into the science, the fluorescence, or visible light that is emitted from a material when black light is shined on it, happens at the atomic level. You are adding energy to the atoms then observing what light the atoms gives back. The color and brightness depends on the atomic makeup. Physicists and chemists can go as far as identifying the specific chemicals in materials by shining ultraviolet on them. Happily, you don’t have to be a scientist or even know the science to effectively use a black light. For collectors, it is as easy as observing the fluorescence and knowing what it means.

Common handheld LED blacklight flashlight
Common handheld LED blacklight flashlight
Common style of blacklight flashlight
Common style of blacklight flashlight

Tips on effective use of black light

A black light must be used in a dark room, the darker the better. Take a minute or three to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark. The cards should being examined on something that does not fluoresce. Something that does not fluoresce will appear black under black light. If your background fluoresces too brightly, it can be hard to judge the fluorescence of the cards or memorabilia.

It is best for the cards to be removed from any top loader, glass, plastic sleeve or other holder. The holder itself can fluoresce or otherwise mask the card’s fluorescence. Shine the black light on all sides of the cards. Some trading cards and photographs have coatings on one side that can block fluorescence.

For comparison purposes, you may wish to have a shard of modern computer paper that fluoresces brightly. Between the black table and bright shard, you will have a range on the spectrum for comparison.

Practice using the black light. See what items from all years look like under black light. Feel free to look at magazines, books, paper, glass vases, plastic. Some around the house materials that fluoresce brightly include granular laundry detergent, vaseline, plastic items, textiles and some reading glasses.

Identification of Reprints and Forgeries of Pre-War Cards

A black light is effective in identifying many, though not all, modern paper and cardboard stocks, and this is its most common use with trading card and paper ephemera collectors. If a so-called 1933 Goudey, 1909 T206 or 1925 postcard can be identified as being made from modern cardstock, it is obvious that it is a modern made fake. For many modern fakes, identification is as simple as shining a black light on them.

Starting in the late 1940s, manufacturers of many products began adding `optical brighteners’ and other new chemicals to their products. Optical brighteners are invisible dyes that fluoresce brightly under ultraviolet light. They were used to make products appear brighter in normal daylight, which contains some ultraviolet light. Optical brighteners were added to laundry detergent and clothes to help drown out stains and to give the often advertised `whiter than white whites.’ Optical brighteners were added to plastic toys to makes them brighter and more colorful. Paper manufacturers joined the act as well, adding optical brighteners to many, though not all, of their white papers stocks.

A black light can identify many trading cards, posters, photos and other paper items that contain optical brighteners. In a dark room and under black light optical brighteners will usually fluoresce a very bright light blue or bright white. To find out what this looks like shine a recently made white trading card, family snapshot or most types of today’s computer paper under a black light.

If paper or cardstock stock fluoresces very bright as just described, it almost certainly was made after the mid 1940s.

The bright light blue uv fluorescence shows that this 1880s Old Judge is a modern reprint
The bright light blue uv fluorescence shows that this 1880s Old Judge is a modern reprint

It is important to note that not all modern papers and stocks will fluoresce this way as optical brighteners are not added to all modern paper. For example, many modern wire photos have no optical brighteners. This means that if a paper does not fluoresce brightly this does not mean it is necessarily old. However, with few exceptions, if a paper object fluoresces very brightly, it could not have been made before World War II.

The beauty of this black light test is you can use it on items where you are not an expert. You may be no expert on 1920s German Expressionist movie posters, World War I postcards or American Civil War etchings, but you can still identify many modern reprints of those items. The infamous Hitler Diaries were identified as forgeries in part because black light showed that it contained materials that were were too modern.

A 1930s photo on top of a 1980s photo under blacklight, showing how the older photo is darker
A 1930s photo on top of a 1980s photo under blacklight, showing how the older photo is darker

In the same way, the black light can also identify modern reproductions of antique cloth items, as the cloth and even stitching sometimes fluoresces very brightly if made after WWII. Game used and military uniform experts often use black light.

The fluorescent tag shows this old fashioned fedora is modern
The fluorescent tag shows this old fashioned fedora is modern

Identification of restoration and alterations

Black light is helpful in identifying many types of restoration and alteration to cards, posters, paintings, prints, furniture, photos, vases and more. These items can be altered by the addition of paper, glue, paint, varnish and/or other material. Items are typically restored to fix damage and make things appear in better condition.

As the added material often fluoresces differently than the rest of the item, the restoration can often be identified under black light. The restored part will stand out by either being brighter or darker than the rest of the material under black light. With paintings, restoration often appears as black spots and forged signatures often fluoresce much brighter than the rest of the painting.

Black light shows restoration to a vase
Black light shows restoration to a vase

To identify alterations, one should also look for visible light differences in texture, gloss, and opacity. In normal visible daylight light, when a print is put at an angle nearing 180 degrees to a desk lamp, the added paint, ink or paper will often have a different texture and gloss from the rest of the card surface. The added material also may be physically raised from the rest of the surface or an erased area will have different gloss. You might be able to feel the area with your fingertip.

Opacity is the ‘see through’ effect when you hold an item up to a light in visible light. If material is added to a poster or print, it will often appear darker than the rest of the translucent collectible.

Some dealers and collectors remove autographs from baseballs for aesthetic or financial reasons. For example, a single signed Joe DiMaggio baseball can be worth more than the same ball with the bat boy’s signature beneath. There is one or more companies that will remove autographs. While the removal may be difficult to see under normal daylight, the restoration shows up clearly under black light.

In some cases, baseball card forgeries are alterations to original cards. For example, a inexpensive baseball card may be changed into a rare and valuable variation by changing text, such as with the 1990 Fleer NNOF Frank Thomas and T206 Maggie spelling error. Close examination under black and visible light will usually give it away.

In a few cases, the forger covered the entire baseball card in a clear substance to try and cover up the alteration handiwork. The substance however gives the card a different gloss and black light fluorescence than other cards in the issue. Once, a beginning collector did not notice the altered text of one of cards, but was curious that the card was much glossier than his other cards from the same set. Examination by an expert revealed the alteration.

Another Way to Identify Reprints and Counterfeits Using Visible and Black Light.

A standard and effective way to detect trading card counterfeits and reprints is by directly comparing the card in question with one or more known genuine examples. Granted, it is uncommon for the collector to already own duplicates, especially if it is a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth or 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. However, good judgment can be made when comparing a card to different cards from the same issue. Comparing the Ruth to a bunch of low grade Goudey commons and the Mantle to a handful of other 1952 Topps.

A T206 Ty Cobb, and even a T206 Honus Wagner, was printed on the same sheet as T206 commons. The printers did not bring out special cardstock and VIP inks for the superstars. When you are studying the qualities of T206 commons, you are also studying the qualities of the T206 Wagner and Ed Plank.

In nearly all cases, counterfeits and reprints are significantly different than the real card in one and usually more than one way.

Comparing cards in both visual and black light is highly effective in identifying modern counterfeits. If you know how to properly compare cards, you should be able to identify a fake 1986-7 Fleer Michael Jordan and 1979-80 OPC Wayne Gretzky.

Before examination, the collector should be aware of variations within an issue. A genuine 1956 Topps baseball card can be found on dark grey or light grey cardboard. While the 1887 Old Judges are usually sepia in color, pink examples can be found. The examiner must also take into consideration reasonable variations due to aging and wear. A stained card may be darker than others. An extremely worn or trimmed card may be shorter and lighter in weight than others in the issue. A card that has glue on back will allow less light through when put up to the light. The collector will often have to make a judgment call when taking these variations into effect. This is why having experience with a variety of cards is important.

The following is a short list of things to look at. You are welcome to add your own observations to the list.

Obvious Differences: This can include text or copyright date indicating the card is a reprint, major size difference, wrong back. Many of these problems are obvious even in an online scan.

If you are experienced with an issue, perhaps you have collected Goudeys for the last few years, most reprints and counterfeits within that issue will be obvious. They simply will look bad even at first glance. The experienced eye is one of the most sophisticated scientific tools.

Black light Test. Studying the degree and color of fluorescence under a black light is an unbeatable tool for comparing ink and cardboard. If you spread out in the dark a pile of 1983 Topps with the exception that one is a 1983 OPC, the OPC will be easy to pick out with black light. The OPC is made out of a different card stock and fluoresces many times brighter than the Topps stock. This is the way it often works for reprints and counterfeits. Reprints and counterfeits were made with different cardstock and often fluoresce differently than the genuine cards. The reprint may fluoresce darker, lighter or with a different color. In some cases, a reprint and an original may fluoresce the same, but in most cases the black light will pick out the reprints with ease.

Visual light appearance of card stock and surfaces: This includes color, texture, feel, etc. The correct gloss is hard to one of the hardest things duplicate on a reprint, and most reprints will have different gloss than the original. Make sure to check both sides. A T206 and 1951 Bowman, for examples, have different textures front versus back. Make sure to check the thickness, color and appearance of the card’s thickness or edge. The edge often shows the cardstock to be different.

Visual Light Opacity: As already mentioned, opacity is measured by the amount of light that shines through an item, or the ‘see through’ effect.

Cardstock and ink vary in opacity. Some allow much light through, some allow none, while there rest will fall somewhere in between. Most dark cardboard will let through little if any light. White stocks will usually let through more. While two cardboard samples may look identical in color, texture and thickness, they may have different opacity. This could be because they were made they were made in different plants, at a different time and/or were made from different substances.

Testing opacity is a great way to compare cardstock and ink. The same cards should have the same or similar opacity.

Opacity tests should be done with more than one card from the issue. Comparisons should take into consideration variations due to age, staining, soiling and other wear, along with known card stock variations in the issue. It must be taken into consideration that normal differences in ink on the card will affect opacity. If one genuine T206 card has a darker picture (a dark uniformed player against dark background), it should let less light through than a genuine T206 card with a lighter picture (a white uniformed player against a light sky).

In nearly all cases, the differences between a questioned card and genuine examples will be significant enough that the collector will be nearly certain it is a fake.

Purchasing a black light

The collector should purchase a longwave ultraviolet light (‘black light’), as opposed to a shortwave ultraviolet light (often called UVC or germicidal light). Shortwave is important in a few specialty areas, including identifying stamps and gem, but longwave is the safest and all you need for the purposes of this article.

Black lights will usually be advertised as longwave, will have a wavelength of about 300-400 nanometers/nm (shortwave is usually 254nm) and are much more plentiful and cheaper than shortwave lights. A black light can be purchased for well under $20, while a decent shortwave light is in the $100+ range. This article pictures the two most common styles of black lights for sale, with shortwave lights usually looking significantly different.

Safety of black light

Black light is used by many collectors and hobbyists and is safe to use. In fact, sunlight and office and home lights give off UV. The key is to not stare directly at the light source, just as you shouldn’t stare at any light. 

Ending This Article With Some Interesting If Useless Facts About Ultraviolet Light

There is a wide range of ultraviolet light, with black light only being a section of it. Ultraviolet research and use is a fascinating and varied area and the following are just a few interesting facts.

** Astrophysicists study the ultraviolet light emitted by planets, stars and galaxies to identify the chemical makeup and ages. Some distant stars can only be seen, and thus discovered, in the ultraviolet range. As the earth’s atmosphere blocks much ultraviolet, the ultraviolet is recorded and photographed from space stations and rockets.

** The Dane Niels Finsen won the 1903 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his use of ultraviolet in treating diseases, and ultraviolet light is used in many areas of medicine.

** Some animals can see black light and this vision has practical uses. Bees and butterflies identify flowers by markings that can only be seen in ultraviolet, and this is important for finding species of flowers in the shade and dark. Reindeer use their ultraviolet vision to find their staple food lichen and to avoid their predators, Polar Bears. Polar Bear urine can be seen in the ultraviolet range. Scorpions have ultraviolet sensors in their tails that tell them when it is safe to go outside at night.

** The goldfish is the only animal known to be able to see both ultraviolet and infrared light. Infrared is a range of light invisible to human eyes on the other side of the visible light spectrum.

** Ultraviolet is used in many areas of art, including ultraviolet photography, uv fluorescent paintings and murals, and black light theater where the costumes, body paint and props fluoresce. Image google “ultraviolet fluorescent portraits” and “blacklight murals” to see some interesting stuff.

MLB adds UV markers to important baseballs, including this Barry Bonds home run ball
MLB adds UV markers to important baseballs, including this Barry Bonds home run ball

 

They Literally Don’t Make Cards the Way They Used To

When a collector says that they don’t make baseball cards like they used to they’re saying more than they likely realize. This article shows the unique antiquated methods by which 1800s baseball cards were printed, and how early baseball cards, fine art and photography overlap.

Printed baseball cards as original artworks

Today, we take for granted the photorealistic images printed on and in everything from baseball cards to calendars to posters to magazines. We can even make our own, using our digital cameras, scanners and phones and home computer printers. As many know, this ‘halftone photomechanical’ printing method translates the image, whether it is of a photo for a 1975 Topps card or a painting for 1953 Topps, into a fine minute dot pattern. You can see the dot pattern under strong magnification, and it is this fine pattern that make the images look realistic from normal eye distance.

1700s engraving print shop
1700s engraving print shop

However, in the centuries old history of printing this halftone reproduction of photographic images is relatively modern. It was invented in the 1870s, but not used commercially until the turn of the 20th century. Before then, photorealistic images in ink and printing press prints were not possible. If you look at the pictures in 1800s newspapers, magazines and books, the pictures are often attractive but resemble hand drawn sketches. If you examine them under magnification you will see that they are made up of solid lines and marks.

Original Rembrandt self portrait etching
Original Rembrandt self portrait etching

In the fine arts, antiques and antiquities world, “handmade prints” or “original prints” are prints where the graphics were made directly onto the printing plate by the artist or craftsman by hand or handheld tools. This is the way Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer and modern artists such as Picasso, Renoir and Chagall made their original prints that hang on museum walls. Handmade prints are considered the highest form of printmaking, and are considered as original of artworks as paintings and sculptures.

This handmade way is also the way early baseball cards and related baseball ephemera (posters, tobacco albums advertising signs, Spalding and Reach guide illustrations, etc) were made. With handmade lithography, such as with the 1880s Allen & Ginters and many trade cards, the graphics were made onto the printing stone by brush, pens and special handheld tools. These lithographs resemble little paintings, even up close, and are prized by collectors for their beauty and brilliant colors. With woodcut, woodengraving and intaglio (engraving, etching) prints, such as with the Harper’s Woodcuts, 1885 Red Sox Tobacco cards and numerous trade cards. the graphics were cut or carved into wood blocks or metal plates. This was a long and laborious processes and publishers and card issuers employed professional artists and craftsmen.

So when you own an 1800s Allen & Ginter or Goodwin Champions cigarette card, baseball trade card, advertising sign or Harper’s Woodcut, realize that you own a handmade artwork that pre-dates modern reproduction methods and it is as original as the Rembrandt or Picasso that hangs in the Louvre.

* * * *

1800s real photo cards

Beyond the ink-and-printing press trading cards, the other 1800s baseball cards are actual photographs. This includes the 1880s Old Judges, Gypsy Queens, Peck & Sniders, Lone Jacks, Newsboy Cabinets and other cards with photorealistic images.

Again, this was before printing presses could reproduce photorealistic images. The only way baseball card manufacturers could produce cards with photorealistic images of the players was to issue actual photographs.

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1875 engraved trade card

Real photo images are created via the chemical interaction of sunlight and photochemicals, so there is no printed dot or ink pattern even under the microscope. This is part of the way these baseball cards are authenticated. If an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen image has a dot pattern, you know that it is a reprint.

These photo cards were made with an early photographic process called albumen. This was the standard paper photographic process of the day and most paper photos of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and such are albumen. As an antique and commercially discontinued process, the following are some of the interesting aspects of the process and baseball cards:

— The albumen photopaper was extremely thin and fragile and would roll up like a cigarette with time, so it had to be pasted to cardboard backing. You will see that the 1800s photocards have cardboard backing and cabinet cards are by definition a photographic print pasted to a larger cardboard backing. As the paper shrank over time (causing the cigarette to roll if unbacked), many N172 Old Judges have a noticeable bow. You will occasionally find “skinned” cards, where the albumen photo was peeled off from the backing. As you would expect, these are graded as poor.

— Albumen means egg whites, and that is what was used to affix the photochemicals to photopaper. Photographic paper needs a clear substance to hold the chemicals to the paper and to allow the images to develop. 1800s photopaper manufacturers owned large chicken farms to produce all that albumen. By the 1900s gelatin had replaced albumen.

1886-red-stocking-cigars
Woodengraving 1886 Red Stocking Cigars Hoss Radbourn

— Albumen photos and baseball cards are well known for their old fashioned sepia tones. This was a product of aging, and the images were originally much closer to black-and-white with some purplish tones. You will occasionally find a well preserved example with the original tones.

— Almost all 1800s real photo baseball cards are posed studio images, either portraits or fake action photos. The posed action shots often have painted backdrops, rugs as fake grass on wooden floors and balls hanging from strings. It is sometimes comical. This is all because it was not possible to to make instant

A pink Old Judge card
A pink Old Judge card

snapshots, much less live game action shots. The subjects had to stay perfectly still or the image would be blurry. In many American Civil War photographs, when the required exposure time needed was even longer, you will often see props and stands behind the standing soldier used to keep him still.

— A rarely used method of adding color dye to the photopaper was invented in the 1880s. Though possible to find blue and yellow albumen photographs, pink was technically the easiest to make and you will see a number of pink Old Judge cards. The down side of this novelty color is that the pink cards are usually underdeveloped.

1888 Goodwin Champions King Kelly
1888 Goodwin Champions King Kelly

— Realize that in the 1800s, many people who lived outside of the big cities followed the big teams and stars in the newspapers and magazines but never saw the games, much less the players, in person. Before television, easy travel and magazines with realistic pictures, pulling an Old Judge or Gypsy Queen photographic card from a pack of cigarettes was often a fan’s first time seeing what a star such as King Kelly or Cap Anson really looked like. It was akin to meeting the player in person.

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David Cycleback is an internationally known art and artifacts scholar who grew up collecting baseball cards and following the Milwaukee Brewers. He can be emailed at cycleback@cycleback.com