Sports Card Alterations Hiding in Plain Sight

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There are card alterations that are extremely difficult to detect. Without the proper tools and training, some alterations are nearly impossible to identify. Professional restoration work is an example of difficult alterations to detect.

Other types of alterations that can be hard to find if you are not familiar with detecting them are power erasing, pressing and trimming.

But there are some alterations that seem to just be too obvious for anyone to ever fall for them. An alteration so obvious that when you find it, you can’t believe you missed it at all.

When we look at a 1971 Topps baseball card, the first thing many will think is to check those solid black edges and corners. A tiny little touch with a black marker and – magic!

What was once chipped or worn away is now black again. A quick glance at the edges or a tilt underneath the proper lighting and that color touch jumps out and grabs your eyes.

Without proper lighting, a surface repair or color touch on any spot of the front surface of a card can be tough to spot. Factors like the type of lighting used, the color of the surface, how “busy” the card design is can all help in masking a recoloring alteration.

Let’s take a look at an example of a color repair that is right before your eyes.

We have a T206 Cy Young portrait card that appears to be a clean and nice looking card. A longer look and we see what appears to be possible paper loss on Cy’s face near his nose.

T206 Cy Young with surface recoloring

As a card grader, one of the first things I am going to do is to take the card and tilt it at different angles under a proper light source. What this is going to do is create a glare on the card’s surface that will make everything disappear except for any abnormalities on the surface. Things such as small surface wrinkles, pressing, power erasing and changes in the surface gloss can appear when doing this light test. If there is recoloring on the surface, there is a good chance this measure will bring the alteration to the attention of my eyes.

As we tilt the Young card under the light source, it’s clear that there are spots of the card’s surface where the surface is not uniform. As we zoom in with a loupe we find that there are in fact spots where the surface of the card has been removed exposing the stock that is underneath.

T206 Cy Young being tilted under a light source

The largest spot of missing surface is just above Cy’s right eye, extending into the green background. This sliver of damage was leftexposed on his face but the damage that extends into the green background has been hit with a green marker.

Because of the amateur fashion the marker was applied and the type of ink, this one wasn’t too difficult to spot. But you can see that under certain conditions, this alteration could slip by.

Detail of the alteration on the T206 Cy Young

Let’s take a look at another example where part of the card’s design that was damaged has been replicated.

Here we have a 1920-21 W514 strip card of Ray Schalk. This card has sustained surface dam-age near the leftborder. Upon first glance, it appears there is a staining or discoloration on the surface near where there is damage to the card stock.

W514 strip card with surface alteration

When we take a closer look at this area of the card’s surface, we find that, in fact, a portion of the surface is missing that includes some of the red ink and a portion of the black border. Someone has not only colored in the missing red surface but they also attempted to draw in the missing border. The raw stock has caused the marker ink they used to draw the thin black border to feather making the thin black line look like a mess.

Detail of the surface alteration. Note the red that has been added and the black border has been redrawn.

Recoloring on a card’s surface isn’t just for covering up spots of missing surface. Sometimes adding color to a crease can make it appear to not be as bad as it actually is.

Take for example this 1954 Topps Ernie Banks Rookie Card. The card is in poor condition with multiple creases across its surface. The creasing is severe enough that it has broken the upper-most surface of the card causing the original printed surface to break open or flake off, leaving exposed stock in the creases.

1954 Topps Ernie Banks Rookie Card that has had color added to the crease damage

When we take a closer look at the creasing that runs through his face and hat, we find that someone has used a marker to fill in the surface damage caused by the creasing. 

This particular example is actually not that deceiving but it is a good example of what to look for. Some recolored creases are very well done and can be hard to spot without a proper examination.

Detail of the Banks RC surface alterations

The last example we will look at here is one of my all-time favorites. I named it the “Popeye Cobb.”

Oddly enough, this is the second example of this alteration I have seen on a T206 Ty Cobb card. When I first saw this card, I thought someone had submitted it again but when I compared it to the image of the first card I discovered that this was in fact another Popeye Cobb! So, there are at least two of these floating around in the hobby.

At first glance this is not a bad looking card. Obviously we see there is a crease that runs across Ty’s head.  There’s possibly some surface damage near his right eye.

T206 “Popeye” Ty Cobb

Let’s zoom in and see what is really going on with this card.

Under the loupe we see that Ty has definitely had some work done. The crease has caused surface loss in the same spot as his right eye. An “artist” has gone in and painted Cobb a brand new eye. While this was not done by a professional, it is fairly deceiving upon first glance.

Detail of Ty Cobb with his new eye

These color jobs are not necessarily meant to get past a professional grader. They just have to be good enough to get past someone at, perhaps, a card show where the lighting isn’t very good and maybe the card is in a scratched screw-down holder. The repair job just has to be good enough to get past the first glance.

Professional jobs can be both amazing and somewhat terrifying. These aren’t simply a felt tip marker or pigment pencil type alteration. A professional restoration can be areas of a cards image that has been painstakingly hand painted using watercolor or special pigments and tiny detail brushes.

I have seen a Goudey Ruth card where the surface damage was so finely painted that the artist had recreated individual print dots with watercolors. This type of restoration work is expensive. Generally a card with this level of work is going to be done on a high-value card.

For a card grader, it’s something beautiful to see under a loupe. I sometimes wonder how many hands that particular card has gone through or where it is today.

As a collector or dealer, it is not the professional jobs you have to be worried about. If you are contemplating the purchase of a high-dollar card, you have to do your research and have the card reviewed so you can be more secure in your decision.

It’s cards like what we have seen here to be on the alert for because these are alterations that are found on all types of cards of all ranges of values. Remember, these alterations are quick and cheap and are only meant to get past your first glance. And no card is safe regardless of condition or value.

What can you do to try and avoid these types of altered cards? For in-person purchases whether at a card show or elsewhere, the No. 1 rule I use is to slow down. Take the time to do a proper examination of a card you are interested in buying.

1952 Topps Willie Mays example of surface damage that has been covered with ink

Detail of the recolored area

I admit it. I’ve made my share of mistakes when buying cards. Remember the saying a ‘little knowledge can be dangerous?’ Sometimes too much is dangerous, too. I’ve been guilty of assuming and not doing the basics.

There have been some purchases that cost me because I either didn’t follow my own rules when buying cards or I let emotion or some other distraction get in the way of properly checking out a card I’m wanting to buy.

I have a T206 card I purchased that appeared to possibly be in EX-NM condition. I remember looking at the card in the top loader while talking with the dealer at a card show. I looked at the card under a light, but my talking caused me to leave the card in the card saver. I made the deal for the card and paid a decent price based on the condition. Got back to my room and took the card out to re-sleeve it.

Yep, you already know. The condition of the card was a solid 6, maybe 6.5 grade with the exception for the extremely light surface wrinkle exactly where my thumb would have been when holding the card in its holder. I had completely covered up a fl aw that I should have caught had I taken a look at the card out of the holder.

My rule to slow down means to take a moment to examine a card out of the holder and concentrate without trying to talk or multitask. My first examination after pulling a card from its holder is to find a decent light source where I can hold the card perpendicular to the light and tilt the card in different directions so I can see the surface. This one step should catch multiple issues like wrinkles and creases to recoloring and power erasing or other surface issues.

Of course I always ask the dealer first if it is okay to remove the card in question from whatever holder it is in and if it ok for me to examine it. I can’t remember a dealer disagreeing with this request but if one did, that would be enough for me not to buy from there anyway.

Unfortunately when buying a card online, you cannot examine a card properly. It is easy to hide a color job or other alterations by manipulating a card’s image.

1975 Topps Robin Yount Rookie Card with recolored edges and corners

Detail of the recolored corner

If you cannot see a high resolution image of the card and are not entirely comfortable with what you can see, you may have to pass on it. I always try to buy from a reputable dealer that will accept a return if a card does turn out to be altered or counterfeit.

Not all alterations are high-tech or sophisticated. Some alterations are just good enough to get by that initial glance. By keeping this in mind and giving that card a light test, you will catch more issues and not get ripped off.

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6 comments

  1. JDonovan 16 March, 2020 at 16:48

    With cards in that condition with big creases, what exactly is the upside to re-coloring? Other than purely aesthetic? Even with recoloring on those, they will still be graded as poor. But they look better, so really what is the harm?

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