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Buy the Card, Not the Holder

If you are new to the hobby, you may have noticed two things: some lower grade cards sell for more than higher grade examples. And second, it’s common in the hobby to hear people say “buy the card, not the holder” when this happens. If you’re new to sports card collecting, you might not know what this anecdote means. In this post, I’ll dig a bit deeper, cover what two other blogs have said on the topic, and provide an example, but it’s essentially about eye appeal.

The Pre-War Cards blog wrote an excellent article on the topic, “Buy The Card, Not the Holder,” a few years ago. In that article, Anson makes two strong points. First, that card graders are human, so “mistakes” happen. Card grading companies use humans to decide grades, so no matter how hard they train, it’s a subjective endeavor. Second, the variance between grades is very small. He goes on to explain, in particular, that all cards graded a one are not equal (think of forgivable flaws, super small holes, paper loss on the reverse of very old cards, etc.) and therefore, there is great eye appeal in authentic cards, they just might be trimmed or have damaged backs.

Take a look at the two 1953 Topps Mickey Mantles below. One is a PSA 5, and the other is a PSA 6. There just isn’t a lot of difference between the two cards.

1953 Topps Mickey Mantle
1953 Topps Mickey Mantle

Big League Breaks expands on the forgivable flaw conversation a bit more in their Inside the Pack article. David starts by explaining that the saying means buying cards that are aesthetically pleasing to you. In his case, he was looking for a 1949 Bowman Duke Snider card in a specific price range and eventually saw the following PSA 1 on eBay, the front was gorgeous, but the back was undoubtedly glued onto a page. He didn’t mind. The PSA 1 looked as nice as a high-grade card on the front but cost him less than 0.2% of what a PSA 10 would.

1949 Bowman #226 Duke Snider PSA 1

The point of ‘buy the card, not the holder’ is that a technical score isn’t the end all be all. Take a look at the following there 1953 Mantles Topps #82 Mickey Mantle Cards. One is a PSA 1, one is a PSA 2, and one is a PSA 3. I prefer the middle card, and it isn’t the highest graded one.

1953 Topps Mickey Mantle
1953 Topps Mickey Mantle
1953 Topps Mickey Mantle

To me, the point of saying ‘buy the card, not the holder’ is that you need to decide for yourself what the price of a card is, not the price of a grade, and see if the card fits your collecting goals. It’s about the card’s particular eye appeal to you.

Let me know what you think, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.


  1. tombowen246337468 tombowen246337468

    Am I in a big minority with the following thought? I never buy graded cards, because I don’t like cards that are permanently placed in plastic. Holding a card is about feeling what it felt like when I was 11, not about looking at an investment. I have no quarrel with those who do treat the cards as financial instruments–none at all. I just own the card for personal enjoyment only. Do you know, do many other collectors feel this way?

    • John John

      When it comes to cost, one can consider investment, but also authentication. With the amount of fraud I like the peace of mind that another opinion (grading company) brings before I drop $1k for example. Back to your main point. I know a TON of folks who only collect raw and there are incredible collections out there that have nothing encapsulated. Thanks for the comment.

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