Is PSA Deliberately Undergrading Popular Cards?

November 13, 2020

In a perfect world the third party grading companies should be evaluating cards objectively, and not letting any sort of biases creep into their final decision for a card.  Yet, we all know that we've seen some questionable grading decisions in the past, based on the numerous trimmed cards that have ended up getting numerical grades.

A recent video posted by Vintage Card Curator on YouTube challenged this fact by taking a look at what they refer to as the "9:10 ratio"; a simple calculation that looks at the number of PSA 9 cards and divides the number by the number of PSA 10 grades.  A simple way to interpret the number quickly--if for example we see a card has a 9:10 ratio of 12:1 it means that a card gets a 10 grade for every 12 cards graded a 9 by PSA.  

The focus of the video which I've posted below is on mostly modern era cards (from 1978-1993), such as the ever-popular 1993 SP Derek Jeter card.

Vintage Card Curator's hypothesis (before examining any card population) and assuming PSA is grading cards 'fairly and objectively' is that the 9:10 ratio for any card in a set should see little variation---whether it's a common card or the most popular card in the set.  

However, based on his research, it is quite common for key players to have a much higher 9:10 ratio versus other cards in a comparable set, meaning that PSA appears to be grading key cards a lot tougher than it does versus commons or less popular cards. 

In the 1993 SP set there are 20 foil cards, including the infamous Derek Jeter card. Notoriously, Jeter's SP card has been a very tough subject for grading due to the foil front which smudges and scratches quite easily.

jeter-sp-chipping

The SP Jeter card is notoriously easy to scratch and smudge due to the foil front.

Yet in examining the other foil cards in the set, Vintage Card Curator found that between 9 and 10 graded cards, PSA gives the Jeter a 10 grade (or perfect Mint) in only 1 out of roughly 27 instances, whereas for the other 19 foil cards in the set, PSA grades the cards a 10 in 1 out of 5 instances.  

Even when looking at the entire population, the Jeter card has received a 10 grade in roughly .13% of all cards sent to PSA whereas the remainder of the foil cards receive a 10 in 2.4% of all cards submitted. 

PSA-JETER-GRADES

In examining other modern era sets there appeared to be a noticeable trend--that the top players from each set had a much tougher shot of getting a 10 grade versus other cards in the set.  Here are a few more examples:

9-10-ratio-psa

There's a lot of big time outliers here, noticeably the 1985 Topps Roger Clemens which has a 9:10 ratio of 1 in 20 whereas the entire 1985 Topps set has a near equal ratio of 9's and 10's. Translation, the Clemens card is about 20x harder to get in a 10 versus any other average card in the set.  And as Vintage Card Curator notes in the video, the Clemens card was printed in the middle of the sheet with no known condition sensitive issues.

clemens-rookie-topps

One other example that I thought was interesting was the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.  As Vintage Card Curator notes, the Griffey rookie is more than 10x harder to get in a PSA 10 than an average 1989 Upper Deck card.  He also dispelled the fact that the Griffey card was hard to get in a 10 due to it's placement in the corner of the sheet, however the other cards on the corner have shown to earn 10's at a much easier rate than the Griffey card. 

griffey-uncut-sheet

Is the Griffey Jr a hard to get PSA 10 because of its corner sheet location?  The stats don't prove this to be true.

The conclusion from the research is that for cards issued from between 1978 to 1993, PSA is more likely to give a mint condition card a 9 rating versus a 10 if it is a key player in the set. 

So the big question: why is PSA severely restricting the supply of high demand cards in PSA 10 grades?  And secondly, is this being done deliberately? 

The simple question to the answer concerning objectivity could be that PSA is intentionally paying more attention to those cards that have more value.  A common card is likely to get less scrutiny (and a less experienced card grader) than a potentially mint Derek Jeter SP rookie card.  There's more on the line for PSA and for the hobby as a whole.

In addition, the data doesn't necessarily account for what I would refer to in the hobby as 'PSA 10 chasers'.  There are many collectors out there subbing common or minor star players to PSA in the hopes of getting a PSA 10.  For the big name cards, collectors are likely to submit in all variations of condition.  In fact if we look at the Jeter SP card, roughly 3% of the population has a grade of PSA 5 or lower.  For all of the other common foil cards (such as Carl Everett below) it's close to 0%.

everett-sp-foil

Most "PSA 10 Chasers' aren't sending in a 'very-good' copy of Carl Everett to get graded

The flip side to the aforementioned defense would be that PSA is intentionally holding back on 10's for the big name cards so that collectors continue to submit to PSA in hopes of receiving a 10 grade. While at the same time, that dearth of PSA 10's leads to higher prices on the existing 10 population. Kind of like a flywheel that never really stops.  If the Derek Jeter 93 SP card had the same 9:10 ratio as the other foil cards in the set, would his PSA 10 card continue to break records at auction

While that's a sinister thought, I personally don't believe that PSA is intentionally engaging in any sort of intentional control of PSA-10 supply.  I do however continue to believe that PSA and other grading companies have consistency issues that need to be fixed.  Could a bias on more popular cards exist?  What are your thoughts?  Let us know in the comments section below.

And if Joe Orlando or anyone at PSA is listening, I'd love to interview you for your thoughts on this matter.

All Vintage Cards

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  1. I get it. I just sent in a 53 bowman mantle that was off-center and definitely i mean definitely excellent to excellent plus. It got a 4 MC grade, which is utterly ridiculous. this card had not a scratch on it, full gloss. and 4 “Excellent/mint” corners. I was expecting a 5.5 or 6 OC, with absolute WORSE case scenario a 5 OC. and I got a 4 MC. Completely useless, now I’m going to have to resubmit it to SCG and hope for a reasonable score. This card would have been a 4 by their guidelines without the qualifier, so they just punched me in the gut for extra fun.

    1. That stinks Tim, seems that there is a lot of inconsistency of late. I just wonder if a lot of it is due to overwhelming demand too. Best of luck with the new grade.

    2. I have seen the same type of grading Tim.. Inconsistent.. I also think in the past they gave more 10’s out than now. I have seen many old PSA cards have a 10 , but should of been a 9 or even a 8. Now I believe they really hold back 10’s on any card worth value and keep the pop low so the existing 10’s hold there value for the investor. It also brings record sales for there brand year after year. When they go up for auction it’s a win for PSA and the seller. PSA name is on the case, now everyone trying to flip cards wants it in a PSA 10 case and record commission’s for the seller. So PSA make good money from millions of card’s flooding there company for grading at $10-20 a card..not including there other services. Plus remember they are a public traded company. The collector’s hobby has become business for many.

  2. Good analysis. But keep this in mind: for lower value (common) cards, getting a 9 doesn’t even cover the cost of the submission, meaning I’ll only send in examples that I think could get a 10, this driving the 9:10 ratio down. For higher value cards, the cost of submission matters much less due to the magnitude of value change for each grade level, so people will send in more lower grades, this driving the ratio up.

  3. As someone returning to collecting after 30 years and learning about grading for the first time, I am disgusted. I will not submit any cards to PSA because its clear they are not able to perform the basic service I want- a consistent and objective grade.

    I am not an investor, I will never sell my cards so I could not care less about the artificial market they’ve created and prop up.

  4. On the flip side. How about cards that are over graded? Today 9/30/20. There is a SGC graded Henderson rookie that sold on PWCC auction for 29k.. It has a 10 grading. Go take a look at the picture on EBay at the listing sold auction. Expand and blow up the picture. Check out the edges on both sides of the card. Do you think it deserved a 10 grade? Hmm.. IDK..

  5. The answer is a resounding YES, of course they are. If you don’t think PSA is controlling the market, your business acumen is fairly poor. The change in grading standards is clearly obvious and makes the previous criteria antiquated. For the average collector, to receive a 10 today you literally need to submit a flawless card, and even that won’t guarantee you a 10, especially on popular, higher value submissions. What used to be a 10 is now commonly a 9 or most often even lower. Has anyone noticed how many more half grades are given out today? The half grade is a convenient reason for not having to give the higher grade, and although an 8.5 seems better than an 8 it rarely does anything to increase the value of your modern card in the marketplace. Also, the submission level has a tremendous amount to do with your grades. The higher the level (cost) of submission, typically the higher the grade returned. I’ve proven this with a key card that I believed had a shot at a 10. It was initially submitted in bulk and came back as an 8.5. I cracked and resubmitted it with the next higher level submission and it came back a 9. I then cracked that and resubmitted it with the highest level submission and it finally came back a 10. The exact same card. Just lucky? Doubtful. The bulk submission (least expensive option) is a very poor choice for those seeking top grades of key cards. These recent trends of the past few years are not due to subjectivity, but rather by strategy and a logarithm. A mathematical computation that creates the business model for their success and profitability. They are keenly aware that saturating the market with too many 10s is bad for business, theirs and the investors they are in bed with (PWCC, Probstein, etc). The record levels of growth for PSAs business is made possible by selling the illusion of unrealistic “big returns” in the customers minds by chasing that elusive 10. This keeps demand and values high, supply low and guarantees the continuing submissions of orders.

  6. this is really tantamount to fraud. we are sending in cards, paying for a professional service, and not getting that service. sure i get it is objective, but these ratios are so far off, it smells like a class action suit should be filed. how could psa explain this?
    i sent in 7 92 topps shaq cards, and they came sequentially on the order sheet
    10 9 9 9 9 8.5 8
    how is that possible?…the 9s looked just as good as the 10.
    also, we are insuring the cards at the 10 level. so if you submit the 89 griffey, you are paying based off of 1700 value..whereas a 9 is 200 value
    adds up

  7. I agree with all of the comments here and want to add a theory of my own. I am in the long-overdue process of sending my cards in for grading as much for the encapsulation as anything else. Then they’re safe and virtually guaranteed to at least retain their value, whatever that value may be. My topic for the group relates to PSA’s posted APR prices. I start my process by selecting candidates from my complete Topps sets, for example, using PSA’s reported Average Price Realized index for a given grade. Once I’ve pulled those candidates, I sit down with my magna light and closely inspect the cards one at a time while pulling up completed/sold eBay listings for the same card. What I’ve found is that often the PSA APR price is highly inflated vs these real-life queries. I wonder where they are getting their information from if not from eBay, which has to be the #1 auction site. If they represent artificial value for a given card/grade, it promotes using their service to send cards in and have them graded. I haven’t been able to find any discussions or investigations on this aspect of PSA’s marketing.

  8. Hoping to get a little guidance here. I have a 93 SP Jeter in seemingly excellent condition and have never worked with PSA. Given the significant range of values for this card between 7,8,9 and 10 I’m at a loss for what to declare. Would appreciate any tips on how to play this. Thank you.

  9. I dont know if its been given thought to the popularity from beginning to end of these players careers along with the fact that the hobby years we are discussing pretty much covers the entirety of the junk wax production era in which many undereducated “collectors” were partaken in buying cards…that variable i believe serves as more of a catalyst than anything as you can study any popular player along with the more popular sets due to anchoring HOF rooks presence and see that these cards were the focal point of chasing and also handling. It isnt out of the realm of probability that psa does maintain specific ratios for relevance of a given card but one only need to pull their public spreadsheets to see that these in essence small handfuls of cards and any other we are discussing are miniscule to the mount of cards and revenue being generated at cheaper cost submission rates. Unless we really want to get down to the nitty gritty and do full blown macro inspections and centering to the fraction which I’ve done most of this argument is rhetoric from a birds eye view of someone unhappy and also noticing that there are some variability in grading aka subjectivity. its something we accept unless we want a robot grading but we all know human eyes are the ones buying so we lean on that model of grading as our baseline but nevertheless some better structure within the organization and more stringent guidelines for graders to not deviate from could remedy some of our collecting concerns of integrity. The fact remains that it would be impossible for human based grading companies to be perfectly consistent and even remotely close without some abhorrent deviance displayed unless they began to automate certain processes but then that presents more handling and more liability concerns overall…so really what do we want? I could see there services appearing more consistent to the collecting base if they were to utilize a program that would be cheap to write the coding for to work in conjunction with a rudimentary scanning device flatbed etc. to determine true mathematical proportions for centering and also flag any edge and inconsistent plane issues with corners and edges and leave the rest to the grader to be knowledgeable on set year production consistencies to determine when and if some of those things matter… but lets be honest psa isnt at risk of being upended and until they are provoked to innovate their service to maintain they market domination they will not do so unless they believe in the long term growth of this industry, again which presents macroeconomic concerns at the very low analytical levels. Oh don’t forget we are talking about a more skilled worker also so better wages etc…what we ultimately need is a collective body to rally and start a company with these and more innovative baseline fundamentals to platform off and provide a better experience and value to collector’s while utilizing fiscal flow through volume and not playing the short term game. eh but what do i know im just a dweeb that collects cardboard who could be a low iq wannabe geek airing out my delusional level 1 thoughts on how psa could absorb and execute other companies from the equation as this industry grows with all the other signs that this is a bigger than understood part of the future generations investment focal points from previously thought safer models of investment instruments…

  10. I’ve gotten several of my cards graded recently that I’ve had since a young kid. Cards in great condition… near mint if not mint – e.g. bird/johnson/erving 1980 topps with all 3 signatures. I have 4 of these cards. Cards were graded and sent back to me as PSA 6 for 3, and PSA 5 for one. 3 of the signatures came back a DNA 10, and one a 9. The grades completely destroyed the value of my cards, and they know it.

  11. Wow, I just learned my 96 Merlin’s premier league Beckham is psa 7. When I inspected it I saw zero flaws.now the card is worth maybe 500 bucks, maybe 1.000. They also have me two messi rookies a 7 and another two eight. I know the Beckham should be higher grade, should I send it to bgs?

  12. Astonished that this is permitted to continue, for any reason. They are being paid to perform a service. They need to document it. Simple as that. We have the camera tech for them to document any flaw. All cards should be a ten by default and each flaw which which decreases its value, should be documented. It’s not rocket science. Do they seriously just send it back with a number? That’s completely nuts. They need to document their appraisals, because otherwise you’re paying for arbitrary opinions, that don’t have to make sense at all. If they can’t point to specific details and quantify their appraisals, then they really are just racketeers.

    This will not mean that lower value cards will be more labor intensive to appraise and document, because they have so many flaws. Obvious flawed will be more visible in fewer photos, and you can reasonably reference overall damage like fading. You don’t need to use a macro lens and adjust the lighting to capture obvious flaws individually. They can be documented with annotation of a single high detail photo for each side.

    The fact that people have yet to demand such documentation is totally insane. I’m shocked that no investors have sued them yet for a lower valuation on a high priced investment than the valuation of another identical item. It can be clearly documented that two cards are in fact identical to the human eye, and unless the appraisers could clearly document a rational reason for the disparity in their valuations, they would very likely lose in court. A class action case could work as well, since there would be many cards whose actual conditions and appraised values could be compared, though damages may be harder to quantify, and the fact the some investors may have benefited will be more apparent, and may need to be accounted for. I think it would be a fairly easy case for an individual investor, which is why I’m surprised no one has taken them to task..

    All it will take is a couple attempts to sue them. Even if the attempts fail. It may only take a single attempt. Because they will see that without documentation, they could lose next time. Plus, even if they don’t win, legal battles take time, attention, and money. If they document their rationale, then no one will have cause to sue, and of their documentation is valid and compelling, then they could probably get such claims dismissed without trial.

    Do I encourage anyone who buys and sells cards, to sue them ASAP. Because if you can document a non-negligible loss, based on an arbitrary valuation, you will probably win. Plus, whether you win or not, you’ll likely put these racketeers in their place and motivate sensible documentation of their appraisals.

    I’m not a collector or investor. Just a random passerby.

  13. What bothers me the most about PSA is they don’t give any details about WHY they graded a card a certain way. I received 4 cards back the other day. Two were PSA 2s and two were PSA 3s. For the life of me, I see no distinction between the 2s and 3s, and frankly I don’t see why there were graded so low (based on the verbiage for a PS2-4 on their website). At the least, they should be putting some notes on the order to explain WHY they gave the grade they did. I pissed away $100 for a card that’s only worth maybe $45 on eBay.

  14. @Max Wording….

    That’s a great way of putting it. I agree 100%!!

    “They need to document their appraisals, because otherwise you’re paying for arbitrary opinions, that don’t have to make sense at all. If they can’t point to specific details and quantify their appraisals, then they really are just racketeers.”

  15. Thirty minutes ago, I got email notification that eight cards I had sent in (at $100 apiece) had been graded. I have been in this hobby for 35 years; I know how to assess a card. I sent in eight pack-fresh cards from the 1960s, and two of them came back PSA 3s. One 4. Two 5s. Two 6s..and one 7. ..Back before PSA decided to cheat us, every one of those cards would have been at least a 7. There were several easy 8s in this bunch and maybe a couple 9s. I did not get a single 8.

    I am a longtime hobby writer and will start a blog soon about this. People have to be warned about this. This is outright theft by PSA, and we have an obligation to warn others who are being cheated out of their hard-earned money.

    I currently have a card up for sale on eBay, a 1909-11 Sherry Magee portrait– in which PSA took an easy 6 and turned it into a 4. Check it out.

    Do not give these people one more cent. We don't want to be part of the problem.

    –Reid

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