I found myself embroiled in a debate last night about comparables (comps), grades, and value. Most in the hobby know the phrase “Buy the card, not the grade,” but what do we mean by that, exactly? Whether you are the buyer or seller, how do we best use comps and grades to arrive at card “value”?

Cardhound has written about general aspects of card value. But let’s walk through some different aspects of placing a value on a specific card. And let’s pay specific attention to the idea of using comparable sales (comps) to price cards. I’ll choose a card I’m currently trying to price–a recently-returned 1956 Topps Clemente in an SGC 5. Nice one, eh? (It’s a consignment card–I’m trying not to buy it!)

Key Takeaways:

  • Comps depend on an open, free market with no panic selling or buying
  • The card market is far from rational but we can and should try to understand it
  • Relying on an “average” of comps can be a starting point, but there’s more to it than that
  • Old label vs. new-label grade quality is definitely a consideration
  • Remember to value the cardboard, and not just the plastic!

The Market Is The Market(?)

Before we get started, you can save your breath with old maxims like “The market is the market!” or “It’s only worth what someone will pay!” Thanks, Captain Obvious! The problem with those statements is that they are not at all descriptive. Just because the market behaves exactly as the market behaves, that doesn’t explain anything. And it also does not mean we can’t try to understand it.

To be sure, the card market can be hard to understand. Cards aren’t commodities and for vintage cards especially, nostalgia and other emotions come into play. We can try to apply reason and logic, but when 2 or more bidders with loads of discretionary income enter the room, it can be difficult to predict the outcome. There’s no perfect process.

For future reference, take a quick look at the 1956 Clemente that is the featured image for this post. And even though it’s impossible via just one picture, let’s play “guess the grade.” What’s your first impression? Way off center, horribly faded, surface scratches, a fairly major scuff or gouge on the left side. 2? 3? I’ll include a “reveal” pic later in the article.

What are Comps?

“Comps” is shorthand for “comparables.” And it’s a relatively simple concept: to determine approximate market value of something, find some very recent sales of some very similar things. This is your likely range. We can adjust “up” or “down” based on whether our card seems stronger or weaker in regard to the comp.

So if we are trying to price a 1956 Topps Clemente in an SGC 5, we start by looking at recent sales of 1956 Topps Clementes in SGC 5. Straightforward, right?

Let’s think about real estate as an analogy, since Realtors talk “comps” all the time. “Comps” assume an open and free market, with a seller under no duress to sell (panic selling can drive the price down) and a buyer under no duress to buy (possibly overpaying). I prefer auction sales as comps because that’s the best example of an open, free, informed market setting the price.

Putting Comps Into Practice

There are some other considerations we can borrow from real estate appraisal. For starters, a house can’t be its own comparable. Maybe you got a good deal, maybe you got a horrible deal. Comparing, by definition, means comparing to something else.

Second, Realtors and appraisers never ever “average.” They adjust up or down in relation to the property they are trying to value. This is how comps should be used for cards as well. My “subject card” looks a bit nicer than the comp below. Both cards are similarly off center, but assuming these scans are accurate, mine has much better color. Advantage, me. I would adjust “up” from the comp here.

Some folks keep it simple: “all 5’s are comps for all 5’s.” I disagree which is why I think averaging is bad practice.

Don’t Average Your Comps

Many collectors refer to “VCP average” as the way to use comps. “Priced at VCP average,” “Priced below VCP average” are common phrases. VCP, or VintageCardPrices.com, is a subscription service that pulls graded card sales data from eBay and many major auction houses. You can look up just about any card and get a handy list of recent sales by grader and grade.

“VCP average” can be a good starting point, but using this figure as your only benchmark isn’t especially wise. Sales within a grade can vary widely–by hundreds of dollars or more. Why? All kinds of reasons! But centered cards tend to sell towards the high end, so using the average to price your centered cards means selling yourself short. And “average” can be an overpay for a weak card.

My SGC 5 is actually really easy to price, and in that sense isn’t the best example for this article. The last 5 sales are: $480, $599, $541, $540, and $550. I’ll exclude the BIN sale of $599 because I think auctions are a more accurate reflection of the market. It seems easy enough to ask $550 for my card and see what the market says about that.

Old-Label vs. New-Label Grades

“Old label” grades have picked up a bad stigma in relation to “new label” grades. There are reasons for this–namely, grading standards seem to have tightened up considerably as of 2020 or so. You’ll see many “old label” 5 grades that would likely re-grade 3-4, for sure. But to write off all old labels as “less than” newer grades is lazy. Again, the best course is to look at the actual card!

However, it is a clear trend that’s easy to confirm if you look at cards all day every day like I do. Remember our ugly Clemente “guess the grade” from above? Well, I’ll just ask this–which card do you prefer for your PC? Which one should sell for (a lot) more? But again, the market isn’t always logical. Actual closed sales prices below.

Buy the Grade, Not the Card?

And when it comes to “Buy the card, not the grade,” does anyone actually do the opposite? Buy the grade, not the card? As it turns out, yes–especially with PSA. I have heard from many hardcore PSA Set Registry collectors that all they care about is the grade. They would gladly trade a nice-looking 4 for an ugly 5, because it helps their registry set value. And they would never consider another brand. They collect PSA plastic, not cards. This is of course not true for many Registry collectors!

While this is completely unfathomable to me, it is a useful tidbit to keep in mind. Yes, PSA still carries a premium over SGC more often than not. (Although not in this case! Advantage SGC for recent sales). And you’ll see outlier PSA sales that just don’t otherwise make any sense Registry is a main driver for this.

In Conclusion

Again, there’s no perfect process or formula for pricing or valuing sports cards. But there are better or smarter strategies and practices, and also some traps to avoid, such as selling yourself short by relying too much on averaging.