Anyone who's collected sports cards, coins or any number of other items is familiar with the term "mint condition," which implies that the collectible is in perfect shape. In truth, even most sports cards right out of the pack aren't quite mint. Those cardboard rectangles can be damaged in any number of ways.
Properly assessing the condition of cards is a helpful skill even for casual hobbyists. Here are the most important things to look for when making an evaluation.
The four corners of a sports card are possibly its most vulnerable points, and some corner damage isn't that uncommon even when the card has come right out of the pack. Ideally, all four corners should be sharp and well-defined.
Minor damage to a single corner may only knock down a card's condition by a notch or so. A seriously dinged-up corner or damage to multiple corners can take a card down several grades.
The edges of a card don't show damage as readily as the corners, but they can still be susceptible to the same types of trauma. Perfect edges should be free of wear or dents.
Turning a card sideways and looking straight at the edge can sometimes reveal defects that weren't visible from the front. Pay special attention to cards printed on especially thick cardboard, as their larger surface area makes them more likely to take abuse on the sides. Cards with dark-colored borders and those printed on foil stock are also notorious for chipping around the edges.
Some of the most obvious defects, like bends or creases, are visible on the surface of cards. Modern cards printed on metallic or foil stock can also show smudges or fingerprints, both of which are pretty easy to spot.
Other surface flaws require a closer look, often with the help of a strong light source, to detect. Many modern sports cards have a glossy coating that should be evenly distributed over the entire surface without scratches or scuffs. Vintage cards sometimes show stains from the packaging, and cards from all eras occasionally show marks from the very tools used to print them. All of these flaws can affect the condition of the card.
Uneven centering is a problem most often seen with vintage cards produced before printing techniques became more sophisticated. Cards with photos that are off-center can be marked down several grades even if they shine in all other areas.
For cards with a traditional border, both sides should be the same width, as should the top and bottom. Borderless cards that aren't centered properly often have a blank white space on one side, making them very simple to pick out.
Autographs and Memorabilia Swatches
Even though they aren't components of standard card grading, the condition of any autographs or memorabilia swatches should be considered when those elements are present. Autographs should be free of any smudging or fading, and the signature should fit completely within the allotted space.
Memorabilia swatches should be firmly attached and not sliding around on the card. Also take note of the die-cut area on the card that displays the piece of memorabilia, as it can show similar wear to the edges of the card.