Beauty is in the eye of the grader – how PSA checks if your card makes the grade

Since forming in 1998, PSA has graded more than 30 million items, literally putting trading cards under the microscope. Here are a few ways grading companies like PSA check if cards stand up to scrutiny.

Who is PSA?

Professional Sports Authenticator, commonly known as PSA, is the world’s largest card grading and authentication company.

PSA is also part of PSA/DNA Authentication Services, the world’s largest autograph authentication provider, and through its parent company, NASDAQ-listed Collector’s Universe, is also linked to Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), the leading third-party coin grader.

Slabd uses PSA and related companies for all collectible services, including card and coin grading, autograph authentications, and other sporting memorabilia grading.

Grading standards

Experienced trading-card customers will be well aware of PSA’s 10-point grading system, ranging from PR1 (Poor) through to GEM-MT 10 (Gem Mint).

PSA also overlays the 10-point grading system with six different Qualifier (‘defect’) attributes, spanning printing, manufacturing and general wear issues.

Numerical Grade Condition
GEM-MT 10 Gem Mint
MINT 9 Mint
NM-MT 8 Near Mint to Mint
NM 7 Near Mint
EX-MT 6 Excellent to Near Mint
EX 5 Excellent
VG-EX 4 Very Good to Excellent
VG 3 Very Good
GOOD 2 Good
FR 1.5 Fair
PR 1 Poor

 

Qualifiers
OC Off Centre
ST Staining
PD Print Defect
OF Out of Focus
MK Marks
MC Miscut (mis-cut)

 

These grading and qualifier codes, along with card details (player name, print year, and card manufacturer name), are found at the top of the final ‘encapsulated’ (or ‘slabbed’) plastic coverings, on completion of PSA grading.

Following are two examples of how the ‘slabbed’ cards appear post grading: On the left, a Gem Mint (GEM-MT 10) example of a ‘virtually perfect’ 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card. On the right is an example of Near Mint-Mint (NM-MT8) 1954 Topps Walley Westlake, which also has an Off Centre (OC) qualifier.

 

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Left: Gem Mint (GEM-MT 10) 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle; Right: Near Mint-Mint (NM-MT8) Off Centre (OC) 1954 Topps Wally Westlake.

Devil in the grading details

Examples of grading criteria include: general wear (e.g. bends, fraying, scratches; discoloration; stains); printing accuracy (e.g. colour, contrast, or other printing attributes); image ‘centeredness’ (range tolerances are defined per grading score); and, overall (naked) ‘eye appeal’.

Condition

Even though each grading score has a defined set of criteria, cards with the same grading score can often have a different set of flaws or strengths.

Consider the three example cards below, each of which were graded Excellent to Near Mint (EX-MT 6) (as seen in PSA’s Card Grading Tips video).

On the left, we can see the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card, the edges and corners of which are worn and chipped and especially noticeable against the red border (‘eye appeal’); however, the corners themselves are not bent.

In the middle 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card, the top right-hand corner is slightly bent, and all four corners show signs of wear; by virtue of its age, the printing value is the lowest quality of the three examples.

And on the right 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente card, print lines or print defects appear throughout the facial region; otherwise, the general printing quality is somewhere in the middle of the three examples.

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Near Mint (EX-MT 6) examples. Far left: 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card; middle: 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card; far-right: 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente card.

Context matters

In the world of grading, the context of trading cards matters, including: the age of the card (wear and tear); the particular card series (e.g. printing consistency compared to cards of that same series); technology variances over time (e.g. earlier cards will have lower-quality printing attributes compared to more modern cards).

In this way, more ‘leniency’ may be afforded to older-generation cards in terms of general wear, printing accuracy, image centredness and overall (naked) ‘eye appeal’, compared to more modern cards.

Ungradeable and no-grade definitions

PSA and other grading organisations won’t grade ‘altered’ cards (e.g. cards which are suspected to have be trimmed, cleaned, recoloured, ‘mis-cut’ or be of ‘questionable authority’), among other misdemeanours.

Following is a list of PSA No-grade categories. You can read the full descriptions on the PSA grading page.

PSA No-grade category Description[1] PSA charges
N-1 Evidence of Trimming Card’s edge appears to have been altered. Yes
N-2 Evidence of Restoration Paper stock appears to have been built up. Yes
N-3 Evidence of Recoloration Colour appears to have been artificially improved. Yes
N-4 Questionable Authenticity Appears to be counterfeit or autograph deemed not genuine. Yes
N-5 Altered Stock E.g. paper restoration, crease/wrinkle pressing or enhanced gloss. Yes
N-6 Minimum Size Requirement Significantly undersized according to factory specifications. No
N-7 Evidence of Cleaning Whitener used to whiten borders, or solution used to remove wax, candy, gum or tobacco stains. Yes
N-8 Miscut Factory cut is abnormal for the issue, causing the card’s edges to deviate from their intended appearance. Yes
N-9 Don’t Grade Not graded; may be oversized or an obscure issue. No
N-0 Authentic Only PSA is only certifying the item is genuine, without a numerical grade; may be due to alteration – malice or otherwise; a major defect; or the original submitter may have requested PSA encapsulate card without a grade. Yes
AA Authentic Altered PSA is certifying item is genuine, however due to existence of alterations, item cannot receive a numerical grade; may mean evidence of: trimming, recolouring, restoration, and/or cleaning. Yes

[1] Descriptions abbreviated by Slabd for illustrative purposes only. For full descriptions, visit the PSA grading page

Where to start?

Slabd customers have access to PSA’s wide range of services, from card and coin gradings, autograph (signature) verifications, through to a range of other collectibles-related services.

Because of the high volumes of items sent for grading, Slabd customers generally pay less for PSA services compared to individuals who have their cards graded by PSA directly.

If you’re thinking about grading a card, first decide on your motive: is it for financial, personal or other non-financial reasons?

If you’re in doubt, Slabd staff can help you make an informed decision.

Additional resources

PSA grading cards