On why Grading is not a Replacement for Serial Numbering

When I started collecting Basketball cards in the mid ’90s serial numbered cards weren’t popular. The very few cards that were numbered featured a ridiculously high print run like 10,000 or even 25,000. Also, the cards usually didn’t feature a true numbering — instead each card said 1 of 25,000 with no distinction on whether it is the first or 25,000th one. Significantly lower print runs were mostly handwritten and reserved for autographed cards typically issued by Classic and Scoreboard.

In 96–97 two product lines of major brands introduced what we nowadays consider a proper serial numbering: E-X2000 Credentials (#/499) and Flair Showcase Legacy Row 0, 1, and 2 (each #/150). In the following season, serial numbering took off as a lot of product lines issued numbered parallels and inserts. Examples of the most popular ones are Finest Embossed and/ or Refractor parallels, Skybox Premium Star Rubies, Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems, Flair Showcase and Ultra Masterpieces or SPx Grand Finale. In each of the subsequent years, more and more products were issued with almost each one of those featuring one or several serial numbered parallel base sets. Furthermore, numbered parallel sets of insert sets became fashionable from the late ’90s onward. Over time, serial numbering grew so popular that Panini products now feature an overwhelming number of differently numbered parallel sets.

The collectors’ preference for trading cards to be serial numbered is obvious. On the one hand, a print run tells you how scarce a card really is and on the other hand the imprint #93 of 500 renders your card unique in a way that there is only one 93rd copy of it. Wouldn’t it be a collector’s ideal if this was true for all of his cards? That is where grading comes into play. Firstly, a graded card will receive a unique number comparable to a serial number and, much more importantly, every major grading company publishes a population report which tells you how many cards of each grade exist. In that manner, by submitting a common trading card to grading it gets transformed into a serial numbered card. When you happen to own a very decently conditioned card that belongs to a condition sensitive set you might even end up with a rare piece even though the set originates from the so-called junk-wax era and was heavily overproduction.

So in addition to authenticating a card and making its condition transparent for everyone, grading also puts a sort of serial number on it which might be a significant reason for the steeply rising numbers of submitted cards. One problem of course is that when the number of cards graded keeps on increasing your print run will also increase and consequently the scarcity will decrease. In the worst case, the supply of highly graded condition sensitive sets could outgrow the demand which would lead to falling prices. Furthermore, the inherent subjectivity of grading leads to the fact that cards get taken out of their slabs and resubmitted in hope for a better grade. This adulterates the population report and your card seems less scarce than it actually is. Also taking into consideration the well-known issue of mislabeling in some sets, the artificial print run in terms of the pop report might not be very accurate.

That being said, I don’t regard a submission to a grading company equal to an actual serial numbering. In my opinion, still the most appealing usage for grading is in the framework of online deals where you don’t have the chance to examine a card’s condition live but only through a couple of photos. Another advantage is that the physical characteristics of the slab help to protect the card from damage. So the usefulness for investors and flippers is obvious.

As a collector, apart from the protection aspect, I don’t care much about grading because for once I don’t buy into the serial numbering aspect for the reasons explained above. And last but not least, whether a grading company assigns an 8, 9.5 or 10 doesn’t matter to me as long as I am satisfied with the particular card’s condition.

Passionate Basketball card collector from Germany. https://www.instagram.com/shaqcardcollector_de/?hl=de