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Trading card alchemy

I went to a card show today. You'll see what I landed in the next post, but I wanted to write today about something I heard there.

I was at my usual table, hunting vintage cards while in set-completing mode. Since this dealer caters to set collectors, he has binders and binders of different vintage sets everywhere. And he attracts slightly older customers, because as much as I don't want to admit it:

a) I'm old
b) set collectors are old

Those are relative statements, of course, but there was no mistaking the gray-haired gentlemen paging through cards along with me.

There was one man talking to the dealer mainly. It was a high-level discussion: T206s and Honus Wagner and running into trimmed tobacco cards. It's stuff I'll probably never worry about in my life.

Another gray-haired man joined the conversation and the discussion turned to removing stains from cards, and soaking cards, something that both the dealer and the gray-haired man had apparently done many times without a hint of regret. This is considered a "gray area" in the world of cardboard alteration, with many saying it's OK, but few shouting it to the rooftops.

Then the talk turned to a collector/dealer who apparently lives just north of Syracuse, where the show was. The dealer said he knew the name and called him "notorious in the hobby."  That intrigued the two gray-haired men, and me, of course, and here we go:

The dealer said this man, whose name was mentioned but I won't mention it here because some of this might be hearsay, is sort of an expert at "fixing" flawed memorabilia. He is known for taking creases out of cards, and the dealer was not keen on people doing that. One of the gray-haired men wasn't either. "What if the crease comes back?" he said.

This was interesting to me because I had never heard of it. (I'm still such a newbie). And I had never considered it. The 1952 Rocky Bridges up top has a major crease in it down the middle from top to bottom. Not once have I thought, "I wonder if that could be fixed?" It's always been "what's done is done."

But the dealer went on. He said that this guy's newest thing is to claim that he can erase autographs off of balls so that there is no trace of that autograph on the ball. The dealer was very much against this. He said that this would allow someone with a ball that featured autographs of a mega star and four nobodies to suddenly become a ball with a single mega star's autograph. And that ball would sell for a lot more money.

Then it became apparent to me why fixing a crease would be something that someone would want to do.

The dealer called the guy "an alchemist," like it was his area of expertise. I didn't know alchemists existed anymore, except in the beer-brewing world. Maybe the guy actually has a chemistry background and that was what the dealer meant. But the word was interesting to ponder. Alchemy seemed appropriate -- performing science that seemed impossible, the obliteration of creases, the erasing of signatures.

It was then during the conversation that a younger guy walked by and stopped when he heard the discussion. It turned out the cardboard alchemist was his uncle. And that got the dealer excited.

He started asking him about removing creases and the nephew said, yes, his uncle does do that. But he said it wasn't really removing them. He said once the work was performed, you could still see a line where the crease was. But when one of the guys asked if those fixed crease cards are submitted for grading, the nephew said "sure."

Then the dealer asked the nephew about removing signatures. The nephew said he had never heard of that one.

That's where the conversation ended. But it made me think, what is acceptable when altering a card? The older guys there seemed to think soaking cards was a tried-and-true practice to remove excess glue and maybe lessen wrinkles. They agreed that trimming was bad (yet an accepted part of the hobby). The dealer was adamant about full disclosure when a card been altered. Good for him. And removing creases and autographs seemed way out of line, I was relieved to learn.

But I was raised to believe -- by the good bloggers who came before me -- that any altering of the card to make it appear better than what it was, is not acceptable.

Yet if someone could actually remove a crease from a card -- I mean get rid of it as if it never existed, not even a line -- then wouldn't that be improving the card, like restoring a piece of furniture? I suppose the key questions is: do you plan to sell it?

I admit the conversation confused me with the contradictions. It was as if the lines were being blurred. I just know that coloring in chipping on 1971 Topps with black magic marker is not cool.  And to make things easier on myself, I simply lump any altering of a card to improve the sale price as not cool, too.

How about you?


Zippy Zappy said…
"I went to a card show today."

This is like the 69th time I've read somebody post that on this blogosphere this week. Did the stars all align for many of the bloggers to attend a card show in their respective areas around the same time (which is to say I went to a card show today as well)?

"How about you?"

Oy, this is one of those questions that calls for replies that are a good 5-6 paragraphs long and could've been/probably were somebody's college grad thesis. My short answer is, if someone is going to go through all of the trouble of getting rid of creases and autographs for the sake of getting more money, then those cards and autographs must be some of the pricier ones worth at least three digits on a bad day. And I personally am not involved in that part of the hobby so therefore it doesn't affect me and I don't care. However you're right, the line between prepping and fixing cards for good purposes as opposed to questionable purposes is very blurry.
I haven't been to a card show since 2008. Sorry, guys.

That's weird. I would never consider it. I like my vintage beat up. It wouldn't even occur to me that something as permanent as a crease could be removed. Weird. No thanks.

If it weren't for those creases, I'd own very few vintage cards.
Cardboard Jones said…
I just had a discussion with someone this week about such things. My dad, a commercial artist by trade, has been restoring antiques for people all over the country for years now. To him (and those within the antique world?), it seems an acceptable thing. Personally, I don't advocate it within the sports collectibles world. Only vintage stuff I buy is beat up, so I doubt it would ever affect me much- but still, don't like it.
Robert said…
If it weren't for off-center, beat up and dinged cards, my vintage collection would be about 20% of what I do have today.

If it's too good to be true, then it probably is. That's my motto when it comes to vintage...

Great story, thanks for sharing
Anonymous said…
This is largely an academic discussion for me, because any card worth altering is way out of my budget, unless the card was exposed as having been altered (I did recently buy a "caught in the act" altered card like that at about 5% of the "uncaught" book value)...

I will grudgingly allow the gum stain removal, because the card itself would still need to be otherwise EX/MT for it to be worthwhile and it's more removing a foreign material than making it something it's not.

Removing unwanted signatures from a ball is kind of a dicey proposition... It seems extremely shady, but if the key autograph is not being altered or forged in any way... well... I don't support it, but I don't know how much I condemn it.

Removing creases is just flat out wrong.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Shlabotnik. Doing something like gum stain removal seems fine. This is somewhat of a tongue in cheek story, but the point of it I actually mean in all seriousness. The other day my 3-year old came up to me when I was going through my cards and had just picked his nose. By the time I had grabbed a tissue, he had wiped it on his shirt. Not a big deal to me, but this post made me think - if he had flicked it on one of my cards instead of on wiping it on his shirt, I would wipe the booger off the card. That's not restoration, it's removing an object that's foreign to the card. If you're able to do it, more power to you. When I was buying 1980's cards for my project, I did that as best I could when I got cards with gum stains. So removing something foreign to the card, like a gum stain or a kid's booger seems OK to me.

The other alchemy stuff is probably not. Though I'm not even completely sold on that. Like you said, it could be compared to restoring furniture.

Last thing - I have no clue what this soaking you're talking about is! It sounds like putting cards in liquid?!!? Maybe that would get the stain off, but, I don't know - doesn't getting cards wet ruin them in a far worse way? I'm no scientist, but that sounds weird and iffy to me!
night owl said…
Re: soaking cards, here you go:

Stubby said…
As somebody who doesn't sell anything, I'd prefer they left the cards alone. First off, the folks who are into doing such things aren't hobbyists, they're the speculators and investors--the kinds of people who have done everything in their power to destroy the hobby. So, to begin with, I don't like those people. (And, let's be honest, no actual collector or hobbyist--even those who sell cards so that they can buy other cards--is ever going to do this; so it is just "those" people, whom I already can't stand).

Secondly, I certainly have nothing against a nice looking card and I do steer clear of the larger creases when I can. But I also have a special appreciation for the well worn card. Its got a history...a story to tell. I still have the Jack Fisher card that was the first card I saw in the first pack I ever bought back in '64. There's almost nothing left of it. Wallet cards are happy they don't look this beat up. That card can tell a story and, in that case, its my story. I wouldn't trade it for the same card in gem mint condition.

Third, a lot of us--whether we're team or player collectors or both--are working on completing something. And that something usually includes at least one card that is so far beyond our means, there's no real hope of actually completing it. Unless there are lesser grade examples at lesser prices.

I use this example to tell people the kind of collector I am. As a Mets collector, I had neither the Seaver nor Ryan rookie cards when I returned to the hobby in the 80s. Never got them from packs, even though I was buying them back then. I found the Seaver rookie at a show for $17. I asked the dealer what was wrong with the card (which already booked for hundreds at the time). He said it looked like it had been chewed up by a lawnmower. Didn't look that bad to me. Not at all. And for $17, I couldn't pass it up. I bought the Ryan rookie from my LCS at the time as a gift to myself when I quit my job to come south to be with my dying father. I'd stared at it in the case for years, but the price just seemed out of my range (at this late date, I don't remember how much was too much--$225, maybe?). It wasn't mint or anything, but it was pretty sharp looking (I might say Ex-Mt). Nice corners and all, a tad off-center. Today, that Ryan rookie is in a screw-down holder in a "safe place" where I never look at it at all. The Seaver rookie is in a binder with all my other Mets cards and I get to look at it every time I look at all my other Mets cards. Which one do you suppose do I enjoy the most? Which one means the most to me? Yeah, I'll take that $17 Seaver rookie every day over the expensive card I never look at. I know I should just free the Ryan rookie and put in it with my other Mets cards. I'm never going to sell it anyway. But I just haven't been able to bring myself to do it. If you could "fix" or "restore" the Seaver, it would just end up somewhere I'd never see it again.

And trimming is just about as sleazy as anything could possibly be. Those people should end up in the deepest levels of hell, IMHO.
Jeremya1um said…
I really don't mind if a card is creased or whatever, as long as it's not horrible. That's the only way I can really afford to add vintage cards to my collection. As long as there isn't any ink markings on it I'd be fine with the card.
As far as altering cards, I am against it. Like Night Owl said, what's done is done. Its dishonest (just like pack searching) and gives the seller an upper hand. It's hard enough to find decently priced cards, and now with dealers altering cards, it reduces the number of affordable cards, so the people like me who can't afford mint cards have less to choose from and the rich man wins again.
Lastly, I used to collect autographs for many years, and I've heard of people erasing autographs on balls by using all kinds of methods. Sometimes it was to erase a signature of a scrub player off of a sweet spot so they can use the ball again ( if it was a single signed ball). Other times it is to do what was mentioned and make a team ball worth more by just leaving the star(s). The first method I'm ok with. It's just someone wanting to use a ball again. The second is akin to the card altering and pack searching. Just let us low-mid range collectors have a chance at something good. It's bad enough that we have pack searchers and people who buy cases of product, keep the hitz, and throw out the rest of the cards. There are many people who would take the common cards, there are tons of team collectors out there, and I'm sure it would help a kid start or bolster their collection. Let's just be fair and honest and everyone wins.
Great post on a topic that's filled with emotion and opinions...

When it comes to most cards, I prefer best condition I can find, but for vintage I'm open to anything that fits the budget. 75's are the exception where I want to get the best condition cards I can. There's something about a really nice 75 that's tough to put into words.

Opinions - I'm with Zippy Zappy it would take a whole post. The summary... I think us collectors generally know what feels right. Removing foreign objects like lifetimetopps said seems ok. Trimming a card is definitely not ok. Removing autographs - I understand the explanations but that just seems goofy.

By the way, the Mint Condition book had some great stories including doctoring cards from Kevin Saucier, one of the experts. It helped me understand what to look out for. If anyone's interested, I followed up and wrote about Kevin and the book in a recent post here:
Stealing Home said…
I consider myself a purist in these matters. I don't condone the altering, not even for a card of my own that I would never sell.
Baseballs and cards have histories, and the scars and creases tell their stories, just like our faces do.
No botox for my eyes - no stain removal for my cards!

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