The advent of eBay and other card collecting marketplaces have opened up the lines of communication between buyers and sellers, creating a more liquid and transparent card market.
However, with the ease in buying and selling comes a dark and mysterious side of the hobby that continues to infiltrate for sale listings.
Of course, I’m talking about counterfeit cards. Now, this isn’t a new thing, fake baseball cards have been circulating for decades. But, the sophistication of the printing methods will only get better and better as time goes on.
This piece will take a closer look at the overall counterfeit market, including telltale signs of spotting a fake vintage card along with other key information to help you all become a more educated collector.
Difference Between Counterfeit (aka ‘Fake’) and Reprints
Before diving in, I find it necessary to explain a common point of confusion among some newer card collectors. A counterfeit card is one that is created for the sole purpose of misleading collectors. Vintage counterfeit cards are often aged to make the cards look more authentic.
A reprint card is one that is created with the sole purpose of being utilized as a collector’s item, while fully acknowledging that the card is a reproduction. Sometimes, but not always, a reprint has some text such as ‘reprint’ printed on the card to help distinguish it from the authentic card. Reprint cards are sometimes re-created as an entire set, as we have seen with several T206 set reproductions.
The lines between a reprint and a counterfeit card can often be blurred. For instance, we have seen scammers erase the words ‘reprint’ in order to try and pass off the card as the real thing. And there are ALWAYS cards listed on eBay that are reprints but actually being sold as something of questionable authenticity.
eBay Seller Warning Signs
Pleading Ignorance, But They Know It’s a Fake
There are some commonly worded scams on eBay that help collectors in pinpointing a fake. Usually it goes something like this:
I found these cards in the attic of my grandfather and I’m not sure whether or not they are real as I don’t collect cards
And note that eBay requires that sellers list a card as a reprint if there is a question about authenticity. Here’s a real listing which is usually how they are advertised:
This card is being offered on consignment as an unknown vintage reprint and sold to the highest bidder. Looking at this card carefully, I can say it definitely looks vintage and factory made like a real card with actual wear when compared to a vintage Topps card from the 1950’s era. This card is not a modern reprint or a DIY copy.
The above description was for an obviously fake ’52 Topps Mantle (see below) yet the card ended up selling for $280! If they had only been able to read this article…sigh.. Thus it is clear that many novice collectors are being burned big time by these ambiguous eBay listings. I really wish eBay would do a better job in policing these auctions.
Lack of Seller Feedback, Poor Feedback or Re-Listed Items
Before making a purchase on eBay, be sure to look at the seller’s other auctions and their past feedback and selling history! Often times a seller will come out of nowhere with a whammy of a card and have ZERO feedback and ZERO past listings. Avoid these sellers like the plague.
And a seller with less than a 99.5% feedback score might have some telltale signs in their feedback comments. If you see that the eBay seller has tried to pass along a fake as authentic with a past buyer, odds are they will do it again.
I recently saw a seller with listings for a 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, and a 1909 T206 Ty Cobb. Three of the most valuable and in demand baseball cards in existence, yet these were their only listings and they were all ungraded. So many red flags! Why WOULDN’T you get these graded?
In addition, sometimes they end up having to re-sell the fake card since the previous buyer smartened up and returned it. So, if you look back at their past completed listings, you will often see the card listed previously, maybe more than once.
Old School Screwdown Holders
I don’t know how this ever happened, but for some reason scammers LOVE screwdown holders. Do they think a buyer is impressed by the fact that a card is squeezed between two slabs of plastic and four screws? They must, because I see it all the time.
I will say that maybe 10% of the sellers with fake cards in screwdowns really have no idea of what they have (and were possibly scammed themselves) and that maybe 2% of the cards in screwdowns are actually real. The only reason I mention that last part is because I did find an old and authentic Honus Wagner for sale in a screwdown holder. So, while there are rare exceptions, if you see a screwdown holder and a card with questionable authenticity, probably best to just move along.
Watch Out for ‘Aged’ Reprints
There is a sneaky little subset of the scammer population that is totally dedicated to taking those reproduced cards and aging them so that they look like the real deal. Cards are soaked in coffee or tea or some other liquid. Once they dry, they get that ‘wrinkled’ look with a sort of ‘crackling’ on the surface. Some are more covert about their operations, but some call what they do ‘antiquing’ and just that word alone drives me absolutely bananas. The big thing that I find is that the ‘antiquers’ are supplying a lot of the fakes I see on eBay.
So where do these antiquers hang out? Mostly on ETSY and the cards only sell for a few bucks so if you’re looking to become a Master Authenticator (our certified course coming later this year :)) then it might be a good idea to grab a few to get some samples. Once you’ve seen an aged reprint in person, it’s easy to spot. So, I really find this to be one of the most important lessons for vintage collectors. Now, I’m not going to call out the ETSY sellers by name, but just do a search and I’m sure you’ll find them with ease.
Now here are a few aged reprints of a W555 Honus Wagner, a lesser known strip card. **NOTE the ‘antiquers’ love to age some of this lesser known stuff of the big players ** The front has some obvious signs of a fake for me, but for a less experienced collector it might be a bit more challenging. It’s hard to see the crackling on the front, but that left corner is a dead giveaway to me, certainly looks like more of a forced cut as opposed to natural corner wear.
But it’s the back of the card that’s the dead giveaway. Burn this image into your head. Look at that crackling! An old vintage card would not have this sort of spider web crackling like this.
Counterfeit Card Guide REsources
The Graders Aren’t Always Right
While we love the grading companies, they don’t always get it right. And of course there are scammers that bust cards out of slabs and replace with a counterfeit.
First of all, if you are buying a graded card, stick to one of the big three: PSA, SGC or Beckett. Beckett has two divisions BGS (for modern cards) and BVG (for Vintage) — avoid their lower graded service BCCG as they just do a quick review and it’s really spotty. There are other graders, but some have a checkered history and some have been proven to be outright scams.
Now, as good as the Big 3 graders are in identifying fakes, they don’t always get it right. We discussed this in our piece on strip cards, as a fellow collector purchased a Tris Speaker strip card that was graded by PSA as authentic, but later determined to be a reprint.
Thus, the important lesson here, is that even if buying a graded card, it makes sense to at least do a little homework to certify that the card is real. I think this is probably more important with some of the older more obscure issues, like the Speaker above.
Also, be sure to check the cert number for the holder on the PSA website or other third party grader’s website. This will at least confirm that the card has been graded and that the HOLDER is real. Look for signs of tampering on the exterior of the card holder to ensure that someone didn’t replace the card.
Also if you go to the PSA website and look up a specific card with past sales history, you can do a search on the page (Ctrl-F) for that cert number to see when it was sold. Sometimes you can pop back into an old auction listing to verify that the card currently in the holder matches up to one of the older auctions. I’ve spotted plenty of fakes this way. Normally this card replacement scam occurs more often with the expensive big time cards, such as the ’86 Fleer Jordan rookie, where good reprints are readily available.
Recommended Tools To Become a Master Authenticator
A simple black light can be a big help when trying to detect a vintage counterfeit card. I own this one here, which looks more like a flashlight and is only around $15. The key is go into a totally dark room with the lights off. Take the card out of the holder (if possible) and shine the black light onto it. If the card in question ‘glows’, it’s likely a fake.
It also helps to get a similar card from the set you are analyzing that you know is authentic. If that isn’t possible, after doing this a few times, you’ll be able to notice the glow in the card if it’s fake. Take a piece of white printing paper into the room with you as well. You will be able to see how the paper glows like crazy due to the pigments used in making the paper. Thus, this is why a fake card will glow and an authentic vintage card will not.
David Cycleback who has written extensively on the topic of authentication notes that optical brighteners were used in cards starting around the late 1940’s.
Starting in the late 1940’s, manufacturers of many products began using optical brighteners and other new chemicals to their products. Optical brighteners are invisible dyes that fluoresce brightly under ultraviolet light.
Thus, the blacklight technique won’t normally be very effective if examining say a 1952 Topps Mantle, but for pre-war vintage cards, it’s almost a necessity to have one around.
Don’t need to go too crazy here, as you just need something that can magnify a card with by about 5-10x. I bought a cheap jewelers loupe (for around $5) off eBay which is probably overkill (as it is a 60x loupe) but it does the trick. It actually has a regular light and a little black light (which i I think is used for detecting fake currency in case that’s your thing too!).
Now the reason you’ll need this is to help detect any printing irregularities on a fake card. Modern cards (and counterfeits) are made with color-half tone printing and produce what appears to be a dot-matrix type of effect. I tried to get a good shot of this, it’s not great, but I think you will get the idea, as the dots in the printing are quite uniform in nature. Note that the text, solid borders will typically look like a solid line under microscope.
Thus, if you have a suspected fake pre-ward card that has this sort of dot matrix printing, it’s likely a fake.
Here’s a T206 card under microscope. You can see that there are irregular patterns and that the printing is not as clearly defined as a more modern printed card.
Note that the loupe can also come in quite handy on more modern counterfeit cards. As we discussed in our Michael Jordan counterfeit discussion, the lettering and borders on a Jordan fake are often blotchy and not as clearly defined as on an original.
Let Us Know About Any Good Forgeries
If you see a good fake that would pass even the harshest critic at PSA, please let us know. We are working on building out a database of the available counterfeits on the market and would love to hear from you if you see a good one. Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.