Updated: Nov 25
Thousands of collectors and dealers use card cleaning products. It's one of the hobby's dirty little secrets. Sellers have every incentive to improve the appearance of their cards and potentially get more money by selling higher-graded cards.
But where do grading companies stand on card restoration? I reached out to Beckett, CGC Cards, and SGC. I only heard back from CGC Cards and was lucky enough to get insights from Andy Broome, VP of CGC Cards.
Broome knows the prices of highly-graded cards drive card restoration. He echoed comments made by Kurt Colone, owner of card cleaning company Kurt's Card Care, about the rise in popularity of card restoration correlated to the monetary rewards of high-grade slabs.
Vintage cards have been restored for decades. Picture courtesy of Library of Congress under CCL.
"Card alterations began right after someone realized there was another human being willing to pay more for a higher grade," Broome said. "I have a few cards in my collection that have been professionally restored or 'worked on.' I know they are never going anywhere until I'm off this planet, and they are in holders with labels that disclose the work.
"But if someone wants to sell that card, they have a responsibility to disclose anything that has been added to it or any chemical or mechanical alteration made to it."
Therein lies the dilemma of card restoration. Nearly all collectors agree they can do what they want with their cards. They also agree that any restorations to a card should be disclosed when putting a card on sale. But only some people do that.
"I think there are only two reasons to alter a card – either you want a better-looking example for your PC where an unaltered example is cost prohibitive, or the goal is to be deceptive when the card is sold," Broome said. "Bottom line, if a card is altered and sold without disclosure, that is not OK."
Andy Broome, VP of CGC Cards is a highly-regarded voice in the industry and expert grader.
What is Generally Acceptable?
Nearly all collectors agree that cleaning cards with a dry microfiber cloth is acceptable. Almost all collectors also agree with what's unacceptable. Trimming, adding color, and pressing cards (fixing wrinkles and dents) are universally frowned upon and considered major infractions on the integrity of cards. Sports cards stand alone when it comes to restoration.
"The card market has always been on this "island" when it comes to alterations and restoration of collectibles," Broome said. "When we look at comic books, coins, and even fine art, there is a different mindset. While these other collectibles markets still want full disclosure, there is a level of acceptance in these other collectibles not found in cards. In cards, alterations are a big no-no. Even when disclosed, the cards will bring a fraction of what an unaltered card would."
Fine art, jewelry, comic books, and car collectors all view restoration positively. But there are also major differences between sports cards and other collectibles, most notably in their storage.
Older paintings, for example, have been on display and exposed to light for hundreds of years. Cars are exposed to the elements. Unless they've been stored in a garage from the moment they came off the line, some restoration is necessary.
Sports cards are small, and while they can be put on display and damaged by light, they are often stored away in boxes and somewhat sealed from humidity. In addition, even the oldest cards are about 150 years old, which pales in comparison to the age of Renaissance paintings.
Sports Cards and Comic Books
But sports cards are similar to comic books. They're both made of paper and experience similar types of wear. However, the comic book community generally accepts restorations that would be frowned upon if performed on sports cards.
CGC Comics, the premiere comic grading company, even provides services for comic book cleaning and pressing. But it gives two different labels - a standard blue label signifying restorations have not been detected and a purple label for comic books that have been restored. Cleaning and pressing is not considered restoration. A book that is cleaned and pressed - even by CGC - still gets a blue label.
"The common approach is to clean and press a book," Rob from NEO Cards & Comics told me. "Cleaning and pressing became an accepted practice because the grading companies, for the most part, were not able to detect it. It just became accepted."
According to the CGC website, pressing is "a process that can enhance the appearance of a comic book by removing non-color breaking defects such as dents, bends, crunches, rippling, warping, spine rolls, and indentations." With the comic book community's approval, cleaning and pressing had become so widespread that CGC offered restoration services on the condition of a purple label.
Rob gave me a poll he ran six months ago on Twitter with more than 700 responses. The poll asked, "Should card cleaning be an acceptable practice in The Hobby, aka Kurt's Card Care, etc?"
77% of respondents replied, "Yes." Rob sees sports cards on the same trajectory as comic books regarding restoration and card cleaning.
"It feels cards are heading down a similar path," Rob says. "Cleaning cards have become more accepted over the years."
Card cleaning is gaining acceptance partly because card companies can only detect a few cleaning products in today's market. The cleaning solution sold by Kurt's Card Care is not detectable on a dry card. Neither is the polish commonly used on chrome cards when wiped off.
Poll provided by NEO Cards & Comics
How Do Card Graders Detect Restoration?
Grading companies have a ton of tools at their disposal. The most common tools include "black lights" that can detect foreign substances on a card or modern paper fillers that can be used to reproduce vintage cards. But Broome lists so much more at CGC's disposal.
"Some other tools we use include video spectral comparators and Handheld XRF, or X-ray fluorescent analyzers," Broome said. "But for most of the most common alterations such as trimming, power erasing, color adds, and cleaning - it is decades of grading experience that is the best tool for alteration detection."
Rob from NEO Cards & Comics interviewed SGC CEO Peter Steinberg a year ago about this issue. In the interview, Steinberg says there is little a grading company can do, even with all the tools at its disposal, if there's nothing on the card to indicate that it has been restored.
"You cannot detect what isn't there," Steinberg told Rob. "If you clean a card and there is zero residue on the surface, quite literally, unless our head grader was in the room while you cleaned it, he's going to put a numerical grade on that card because there's nothing there to point to. We can't just sit here guessing, making large assumptions like, 'It's too good to be true.'
"If there's any sign, we're going to kick that card. However, if there's no sign - there's no sign."
Broome offers some interesting insight on another aspect of card preservation: professional restoration. He notes that he has seen restoration work done on some of the most valuable cards in the hobby.
"I have examined several cards with five-figure restoration work done on them, some by the top names in the art world," Broome said. "If someone is willing to pay the fee to have a card professionally restored, it will be for their collection, and it will be disclosed. A card with true professional restoration can be reversed and have the restoration removed.
"Some are truly amazing works of art. Some are surprisingly shoddy. There is a T206 Plank out there that is quite nice and has had extensive work done. There are a couple of Wagners out there that are, in my opinion, not so amazing. Some of the in-painting I have seen on some Goudeys is also impressive."
With the money at stake, it should be no surprise that some of the most recognizable vintage cards have been professionally restored. What is assumed to be the most expensive card in the hobby, the PSA 8 T206 Honus Wagner, is known to be a trimmed copy.
But moving forward, will grading companies get to a point where they can detect cleaning solutions, or will the industry let down its long-standing guard about card restoration?
"I remember the counterfeits and the alterations floating around at shows in the mid 80s when I began buying and selling cards - and I was late to the party," Broome said. "New techniques are tried all the time, but like anything else, the professionals are always learning and building a better mousetrap to combat new techniques. As a grading service, your primary job is never to stop learning and training and staying up to date on what is circulating out there as far as alterations."
For some added reading, I highly recommend the article Restoration Expert Claims Process is Undetectable, written in 2008 by Chris Nerat and published by Sports Collectors Digest. In the article, card restorer Dick Towle estimates he had restored as many as 18,000 cards. The article gives readers a good idea of the breadth and scope of restoration