While there is a plethora of methods for identifying counterfeit sports cards, this article focuses on a do-it-yourself method that all serious collectors can use. This standard method involves comparing the card in question with known genuine examples. Granted it can be unusual for a collector to already own duplicates, especially if it’s a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth or 1986-7 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie. However, good judgment can be made when comparing a card to different cards from the same issue. Comparing your first Goudey Ruth to lower grade Goudey commons and the Jordan rookie to 1986-7 Fleers commons you purchased for a couple of bucks.
Star players and key rookies were printed on the same sheet as the inexpensive commons. Even the Holy Grail of trading cards, the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner, was printed next to commons. The printers didn’t bring out special cardstock and VIP inks for the superstars. This means that when you observing the qualities of commons from an issue, you are also observing the qualities of the stars and key rookies.
For study and comparison purposes, collectors and dealers often gather examples from a wide range of issues. As a pile of multi-year Topps commons can be bought for a few bucks, there’s no reason a collector can’t accumulate a nice reference library. Even low grade common Goudeys, T206s and Play Balls are affordable.
In nearly all cases counterfeits and reprints are significantly different than the real card in one and usually more than one way. This is why comparing with genuine cards is effective in weeding out fakes.
Before examination, the collector should be aware of variations within an issue. A genuine 1956 Topps baseball cards can be found on dark grey or light grey cardboard. While the 1880s Old Judges are usually sepia, pink, blue and yellow examples exist. The collector must also take into consideration reasonable variations due to aging and wear. A stained card may be darker than others. A card that has glue on back will allow less light through when put up to the light. The collector will often have to make a judgment call when taking these variations into effect. Having hands on experience with a wide variety of cards is important, along with getting the input from fellow collectors.
The following is a short list of things the collector should look at when comparing cards.
Obvious differences can include text or copyright date indicating the card is a reprint, major size difference, wrong back. Many of these problems are obvious in an online scan.
If you are experienced with an issue, about all reprints and counterfeits within that issue will be obvious in person. The experienced eye is a sophisticated tool. If you have been collecting 1955 Bowman baseball cards since you were a kid, the average 1955 Bowman will stand like out a sore thumb. Realize that the average counterfeiter isn’t attempting to fool the experienced collector of the issue. The average counterfeiter is trying to make a quick buck on a newbie, perhaps someone buying his first card. This means that the fun stuff of collecting and enjoying looking at your and others’ cards, learning about card history and the hobby and gabbing with fellow collectors will make you a better counterfeit detector.
DIMENSIONS OF CARD AND PRINTING
This includes size of the image, borders and text. Most counterfeits made by photocopiers will have correct measurements. However a counterfeit of the 1956 Topps Willie Mays card had the correct card measurement but the print itself, including the image of Mays, was too large. This created borders around the image that were noticeably too thin. Many T206 reprints have borders, which are noticeably too wide, even in an eBay image. The tobacco add on the back of some T206 reprints is noticeably too small.
SOLID AREAS OF PRINTING
With a magnifier compare which areas are solid and which are not on the cards. On a genuine T206 the border line around the player picture and the player’s name and team below is in solid ink. While many reprints will also have these areas solid, many will not. On the genuine 1971 Topps cards the faux signature within the front player picture is solid black. The faux signature on the home computer printer counterfeit will be made up of a fine dot pattern.
PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OF CARDSTOCK
The cardstock on nearly all reprints and counterfeits will be different from the real cards. This can include difference in color, texture, thickness and feel. Most reprints will have a different surface gloss than the original. Make sure to check both sides of the card when comparing gloss and surface texture. A genuine T206 and 1951 Bowman, for examples, have different textures front versus back. Make sure to check the edge/thickness of the card. This edge on a reprint will often have a different color or texture.
FONT AND SIZE OF LETTERING AND BORDERS
Some counterfeiters go to the effort of recreating the lettering and border lines, making them solid ink like on the originals. On many of these counterfeits the font and size of the lettering is noticeably off. In a few cases the counterfeiter left out entire words from the text. Similarly, the border lines and designs may be noticeably different. For most of these reformatted cards, the text and design will be noticeably off to the collector of the issue. At first glance, it will make the card look strange.
UNNATURAL SIGNS OF REPRODUCTION
In some cases thoughtless printing errors appear on a forgery that has been photocopied or computer scanned. If a piece of lint or dirt was on the photocopier or scanner, it may appear on the card. The genuine card used for reproduction may have a crease or scrape which can literally felt on the genuine card, but can only be seen and not felt on the reprint. An infamous photocopy forgery of the 1952 Bowman Mickey Mantle has a unique small white mark on his chin that doesn’t appear on the genuine cards. Many collectors know that if you see the white mark on the Mickey’s chin it’s a fake.
Opacity is measured by the amount of light that shines through an item, or the ‘see through’ effect when the item is held to a bright light like a desk lamp.
Cardstock and ink vary in opacity when held up to a bright light. Some allow through much light, some allow through none, while there rest will fall somewhere in between. Most dark cardboard will let through little if any light. White stocks will usually let through more.
While two cardboard samples may look identical in color, texture and thickness, they may have distinctly different opacity. This is usually because the cardboard manufacturers used different substances during manufacture. Testing opacity is a good way to compare cards from the same issue. Many reprints will be clearly different, as they are on different cardstock.
Opacity tests should be done with more than one card from the issue. Comparisons should take into consideration variations due to age, staining, soiling and other wear, along with known card stock variations in the issue. It must be taken into consideration that normal differences in ink on the card will affect opacity. If one genuine T206 card has a darker picture (a dark uniformed player against a dark background), it should let less light through than a genuine T206 card with a lighter picture (a white uniformed player against a light sky).
BLACK LIGHT COMPARISON
Studying the degree and color of fluorescence under a longwave black light is an unbeatable tool for comparing ink and cardboard. If you spread out in the dark a pile of 1983 Topps with the exception that one is a 1983 OPC, the OPC will be easy to pick out with black light. The OPC is made out of a different card stock and fluoresces many times brighter than the Topps stock.
This is the way it often works for reprints and counterfeits. Reprints and counterfeits were made with different types of cardstock and ink and often fluoresce differently than the genuine cards. The reprint may fluoresce darker, lighter or with a different color. In some cases, a reprint and an original may fluorescence the same or close, but in many to most cases a black light will pick out the counterfeits right away.
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Using these comparison tests, the collector will be able to identify many counterfeits and reprints with surprising ease. The differences between a questioned card and the genuine examples will often be significant enough that the collector will be nearly certain it is a fake. If the just purchased 1984 Topps Dan Marino rookie has a significantly different gloss, thickness, fluorescence and opacity from genuine commons in the issue, the card is more than probably a fake.
In other cases the differences will be more subtle and the collector won’t be able to make a sure judgment. For example, if the questioned card has a slightly off color but is otherwise normal, the collector may wonder if the card is fake or genuine but with a printing variation. Due to the mass production, there will be legitmate variations across a T206, Topps or Bowman print run. A minor variation shouldn’t automatically be considered proof that a card is a fake.
When you aren’t sure what a variation indicates you should get a second opinion(s) from a reputable grader, dealer or fellow collector. Even the card experts at MastroNet, Sotheby’s and PSA ask for outside opinions from time to time. In all genres of collecting, the collector who regularly seeks input from others is at a great advantage over the collector who is too proud or embarrassed to ask questions.
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David Rudd Cycleback is an art historian specializing in the issues of authenticity, and author of the guide ‘Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards.’ His website is www.cycleback.com