One of the more frequent points of confusion I encounter with more novice collectors relates to card values and why most cards will never ever earn a perfect Gem Mint PSA 10 grade.
Many collectors see news articles about big-time PSA 10 graded cards selling for millions of dollars and immediately assume that they’ve hit the jackpot.
My conversation usually involves deflating their excitement and instructing them on the nuances of card condition, grading, and the ultimate variation in card values.
So how hard is it to actually get a perfect 10 grade from PSA (or any of the other card grading companies)?
It’s a complicated answer, but earning a perfect 10 card grade is extremely hard.
There are many factors to consider, however, including the card’s age, the overall population of the card, and whether there were any factory issues for that set in question.
In this piece, we’ll examine some of the statistics relating to the odds involved with earning a perfect 10 Gem-Mint card grade.
How Does Each Grading Company Define 'Gem-Mint'?
The equivalent for a PSA 10 (Gem-Mint) card at other card grading companies is to say the least--complicated.
At SGC, a Gem-Mint would also be a 10, so SGC 10 (Gem-Mint) as shown below with the 1987 Topps card of one Mark McGwire.
However SGC, also has what they call a 10 - 'Pristine' grade which according to SGC is a "virtually flawless" card with perfect centering. These are also called SGC 'gold-label' cards. See below for a Vlad Guerrero Jr SGC 10 Pristine (PRI on the label).
Beckett Grading Services or BGS uses a similar sort of terminology as SGC does.
Since BGS uses four sub-grades (centering, borders, corners, and surface), if a card receives four 10 subgrades, it receives a BGS 10 Black Label Pristine which tends to be more valuable than PSA 10 cards in most instances.
Note, a BGS 9.5 (which is in theory considered to be Gem Mint) is equivalent to a PSA 10 or SGC 10.
Here's a Jordan rookie below that scored a 9.5 on three subgrades with one 10 subgrade, hence an overall 9.5 (Gem Mint according to Beckett) score.
Note that Beckett Vintage Grading (or BVG) does not use subgrades, but does also have a 10, 'Pristine' rating. Super confusing right?
NOTE That cards sent to Beckett will be graded with a BVG (Beckett Vintage Grading) case if they were produced in 1981 or prior.
So let's quickly recap.
PSA 10 = SGC 10 (Gem-Mint) = BGS 9.5 (Gem-Mint)
SGC 10 Pristine = BGS 10 Pristine
What Factors Go Into Determining If A Card Is Gem Mint?
So, now we know the differences for a Gem-Mint card at the grading companies, we can discuss how the specific grading companies evaluate cards and arrive at potentially grading your card as a perfect 10.
You might be surprised to find that at many of the card grading companies, a card that qualifies as 'Gem Mint' doesn't necessarily have to be perfect.
While most companies agree that a Gem Mint card must have a flawless surface and perfect corners and borders, the variance typically comes down to centering.
As you'll see from the definitions from the three major grading companies, PSA has a slightly more lenient allowance on off-centered cards.
Taken from our Sports Card Grading Tutorial and from the PSA website:
According to PSA, in order to earn a pristine PSA 10 (or Gem-Mint) rating, the card must be a ‘virtually perfect card’. The corners must be sharp, with no staining and original focus in tact.
Note that PSA does allow cards that are slightly off-center to earn a PSA 10 grade, but not to exceed 55/45 to 60/40 in the front or 75/25 on the reverse.
Here's How SGC defines a Gem-Mint card:
55/45 or better centering, sharp focus, four sharp corners*, free of stains, no breaks in surface gloss, no print or refractor lines, and no visible wear. A slight print spot visible under close scrutiny is allowable if it does not detract from the aesthetics of the card.
Here's How BGS defines a Gem-Mint card:
Centering 50/50 one way, 55/45 the other. Corners Mint to the naked eye but subtle wear is allowed under magnification, smooth edges, a few extremely minor print spots detectable under intense scrutiny.
What Are The Odds Of My Card Getting A PSA 10 (Gem Mint) Grade?
Probably no better way to prove my initial point of this article than by examining a few of the hobby's most popular cards that have been in the headlines.
Let's start with that 1979 OPC Wayne Gretzky PSA 10 rookie card, which sold for a whopping $3.75 Million. I can tell you that I probably had 100 emails the day after that sale from collectors that though they would be opting for an early retirement.
You might be looking at the edges of this card and wondering how the heck it got a 10 grade, given the rough edges although this set was issued with nearly all cards showing those rough cut edges.
Now the 1979 OPC (and Topps) hockey sets are definitely what I would call condition sensitive due to the blue borders. Anytime you have a card with dark borders, the potential for border wear increases greatly.
Now all we need to do to asses the possibility of scoring a 10 on an OPC Gretzky rookie card is head over to the PSA Population reports.
Now while this chart only includes cards with a numerical grade, PSA has graded many others with qualifiers, so we'll just round off the total and call it 7000 OPC Gretzky rookie cards that PSA has graded.
How many have earned a Gem-Mint 10? Two. Yes, Two.
How many have earned a Mint PSA 9? 89.
So if you submit an OPC Gretzky rookie card, the overall shot at a PSA 10 is quite slim, roughly .028%. The odds of getting a PSA 9 are about 1.2%. Much better, and still not a bad deal if you score a 9, which is now valued at over $200K. But you can see how much the value drops off from there.
PSA has graded over 20,000 Michael Jordan rookie cards. Note this is also a highly condition sensitive card due to the red borders. They have awarded 318 PSA 10's and 2787 PSA 9's. Meaning that a 10 is awarded roughly 1.5% of the time and a 9 is awarded roughly 14% of the time. But you can see that immense drop in price from a 10 to a 9, the 9 is about 1/10th of the price and drops even further as the grade falls.
It probably makes sense now, why a Gem Mint PSA 10 Gretzky OPC rookie is worth almost 20x that of a perfect 10 Jordan rookie---it's that there are only 2 Gretzky's out there, making it a much harder card to find in Gem Mint condition.
Again, we will reiterate that the odds of a Perfect 10 are very, very dependent on the year in question, the set's susceptibility to condition issues and the variation in the print quality from the factory.
Based on the Population Reports for the 1909 T206 White Borders set, there are 13 cards that have been graded a Perfect 10 Gem-Mint. 13! That's out of over 250,000 T206 cards that have been graded by PSA. Of course, this is a 110+ year set--it would be nearly impossible to have a card stored and kept in immaculate shape for that many years.
Now, we don't fish too much in newer cards, but I'll use an example of a 2011 Topps Update Mike Trout rookie card, which in most cases, probably went straight from a pack to a card holder, preserving the condition. In addition, the white borders make this card not what I would qualify as 'condition sensitive'.
We can see that PSA has awarded 5387 PSA 10 Trout rookies out of a total 10,000 roughly speaking that have been graded, meaning that PSA has awarded more that 53% of Trout rookies as a Gem Mint PSA 10!
Thus, you can see how the variations in year, set and issuer print quality problems can weigh on the ultimate percentage of PSA 10's awarded.
So, while I can't exactly put exact odds of potential success on a PSA 10, I've shown how you can determine the overall possibility based on examining the PSA Population reports.
Summation, for some sets it will be easy (aka Topps Update Trout) and for some it will be nearly impossible (Gretzky OPC Rookie card or even more so the T206 set).
Have any questions on this piece? Feel free to leave a comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org