In the Facebook groups I administer, probably the most prevalent question is “Is this card real?” Most often in these cases, the answer is “no.” Make no mistake: counterfeits abound in vintage. Even though most of them are really bad fakes, it can be somewhat difficult to spot a counterfeit online. This quick start guide offers up four tips that teach you how to spot counterfeit sports cards with relative ease. 

With the rise of online marketplaces and sophisticated printing technologies, distinguishing between authentic cards and fakes has become increasingly challenging. However, with the right knowledge and tools, you can become adept at spotting most counterfeit sports cards. At the least, you can learn to quickly identify red flags. And when in doubt, just walk away. It sure would be nice if that ‘52 Mantle on Marketplace for $500 was a true needle in a haystack–but the odds aren’t in your favor.

This is a massive topic with lots to know in order to be considered an expert (and I’m not even sure I qualify as much of an authority on the subject). But by following a few relatively simple guidelines, you can likely avoid a costly mistake.

Tip 1. Understand Rosette Printing Pattern vs. Modern Printing:

One of the telltale signs of a counterfeit sports card lies in the printing pattern. Authentic vintage cards feature a distinctive rosette printing pattern, which is a result of the printing process used during the true era. Under magnification, this pattern appears as tiny, intricate dots arranged in a circular fashion, giving the print a unique honeycomb pattern when observed closely. Invest in an inexpensive loupe if you want–but any magnification, including the zoom or macro mode on your phone, is likely enough. 

In contrast, modern printing techniques lack this characteristic rosette pattern–when the original is copied, it will appear muddled or blurry under magnification. It is good practice to keep commons from several years around, so you can compare printing and other elements to suspected counterfeits.

Unmistakable true vintage rosette printing pattern, and areas of solid screened ink

Most vintage cards also have areas of solid screened ink. In these areas, you should see no print dots at all. Counterfeits aren’t screened–they are printed on modern printers–and so seeing print dots where you should see solid ink is a telltale sign of a counterfeit. 

Tip 2. Compare Vintage Cardboard vs. Modern Stock—and Try The Light Test(s):

“The light test” quickly reveals a fake ’56 Ted (left) and the real McCoy (right)

True vintage cards almost always have a textured appearance when viewed from an angle and under a good light. Fronts are somewhat glossy but not like today’s cards, and the backs are almost always very dull. Bad counterfeits often have very smooth fronts and overly-glossy backs.

Another effective method for detecting counterfeit sports cards involves the use various light tests. To do the first test, grab a flashlight. Your phone flashlight will also work, as will just about any light source.

Vintage cards were typically printed on thicker, sturdier cardboard stock compared to their thin modern counterparts. Authentic vintage cards will often exhibit a denser, more opaque appearance when held up to light (sometimes letting no light at all pass through). Counterfeit cards are typically made from thinner stock and may appear translucent or less substantial. On the worst fakes, light will pass right through the card, as seen above.

There are some years of true vintage cards that buck this trend–1959 comes to mind, so this is where those legit commons from multiple years come in handy for comparisons.

Another “light test” can be conducted with a simple black light. Place a vintage card and a modern card side by side and place your suspected counterfeit in the middle. True vintage cards appear dull under black light, whereas cards printed with modern technology will “glow” or fluoresce under black light. 

Under black light true vintage is “dull” and modern print glows brightly.

Tip 3. Look for Signs of Fake Aging (Beware the Alligator Skin!):

Counterfeiters often employ tactics to artificially age cards in an attempt to make them appear more authentic.The fake aging technique that is, to me, the easiest to identify is actually the one that fools the most people: soaking a card in coffee or tea to “make it look old.” 

While this method can produce a convincing patina, it also leaves behind a telltale sign: a sort of “crackled”-looking or “alligator skin”-like finish. This will never be seen on real vintage cards, so if you see it, move on.

Note the “crackled” surface–evidence of soaking

(Babe images from CGC cards)

Other fake-aging methods can include artificially distressing the edges or corners of the card, simulating years of natural wear and tear to mimic the passage of time. Look for evidence of sandpaper scuffs or perfectly rounded corners which have been subjected to a Dremel wheel, for example.

However, upon closer inspection, these signs of aging may appear unnatural or inconsistent with the overall condition of the card. For example, with rounded corners you would also expect surface scratches or wear consistent with heavy handling. 

Corner wear that appears artificial

Genuine vintage cards may show signs of wear consistent with their age, but they will do so in a more organic and uniform manner. A crease in a counterfeit might show a bit of “white” underneath due to the modern white card stock used. Vintage cardboard is mostly a gray-brown color.

By being wary of common and overly-contrived signs of aging, you can avoid falling victim to counterfeit schemes. 

Tip 4. Use Common Sense–Provenance, Circumstance, and Knowledge:

This should not need to be said, but first and foremost, consider the provenance of the card (if known) and the circumstance in which it is being offered for sale. If the card is the only vintage card in a shoebox of modern cards, skepticism is advised. If the card was recently found in an attic . . . and is dramatically underpriced . . . and the seller will only accept Cashapp . . . please, connect these dots. A little common sense goes a long way.

Another crucial aspect of spotting counterfeit sports cards is being aware of which cards are frequently targeted by counterfeiters. High-value, iconic cards from popular athletes or rare sets are prime targets for forgery: 1952 Topps Mantle, Jordan rookies, 1968 Ryan, and many Babe Ruths come to mind. There are authorized reprints that will identify themselves as such in the fine print–but there are also many forgeries of iconic vintage cards.  

If you come across an offer that seems too good to be true or a card that appears suspiciously pristine given its age and rarity, it’s essential to proceed with caution. Trust your instincts and rely on reputable sources when making purchasing decisions. Remember, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Counterfeits abound, but they can be avoided fairly easily. If the information above seems overwhelming, then the easy strategies to avoid falling victim to a counterfeit are to buy graded cards, and to buy from trusted sources. Problem solved!

But by familiarizing yourself with the nuances of vintage printing techniques, conducting some simple tests, understanding fake aging tactics, and exercising common sense, you can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to counterfeit schemes to almost zero. 

I hope this quick guide helps you proceed with confidence–or, at least, with caution!

Message me any time at matt@cardhoundvintage.com with any questions about vintage sports cards. Better yet, join today and post your questions in one of the Forums on our Collector’s Club Board.