Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Collecting in a World Where Nobody Cares About Condition

Should these cards be worth the same amount?

One of the things that drives me nuts about the American card market is the insane obsession with condition that has gripped it in recent years.  I've become a bit of a regular on Net54 and it seems about half the posts there are people expressing an opinion related to card condition.  Some hate the obsession with it.  Some are wondering if they should try re-slabbing a card to see if they can get a higher grade.  Some are mad that a card they bought was listed as Ex but is more like Vg-Ex.  Some find the distinction between a PSA 8 and a PSA 9 to be completely arbitrary.  Some can't believe that some people can't see the difference between a PSA 8 and a PSA 9.

And don't get them started about them PSA 10s.

Never in human history has so much (digital) ink been spilled discussing an issue of less import to the world in which we live.

Its not that I don't share a concern about card condition: like any collector I like my cards to look nice.  But at the same time I can't really bring myself to care about it that much.  Are microscopic differences in card centering really worth so much of the collecting world's attention?

In the Japanese hobby, refreshingly, these conversations never happen.  Nobody seems to care much about condition.  I'd like to devote this post to exploring this aspect of the Japanese baseball card hobby in a bit more detail.  I'll do this by first demonstrating this fact empirically by looking at the complete absence of grading services like PSA in the Japanese collecting world.  Then I'd like to further that discussion by looking at the complete absence of any comparable sort of grading standard (outside of grading services) in the hobby in general - the terms "vg", "Ex" or "Mt" are unknown here and have no Japanese equivalent.  Finally I'd like to devote a bit of time to considering both the positive and negative consequences of this difference in the Japanese hobby world: put simply, its not as awesome as you would think.

1. Grading card services are non-existent in the Japanese hobby

To demonstrate how much Japanese collectors don't care about grading services like PSA, I'll do a little experiment on Yahoo Auctions (Japan's Ebay) right now as I type this post.  The baseball card category currently has 180,119 listings.  That is a pretty sizeable amount, and includes everything from commons to cards with BIN prices in the 10s of thousands of dollars.

How many of those cards are graded?  Running a search for "PSA" in that category gives us a whopping:

49 results!

So 0.002% of cards available on the biggest Japanese market for cards have been graded by PSA (a search for PSA's rival SCG gets zero hits).

But even this is an exaggeration in terms of measuring how many Japanese cards are graded.  Out of those 49 cards, 26 of them are actually American (mostly Topps, Bowman, Donruss or UD)!

So we have just 23 Japanese cards graded by PSA out of 180,119?

Yes. But if we are going to narrow this down to how many of these are targeted to Japanese collectors even this is an exaggeration of the relevance of PSA.  Of those 23, 16 of them are cards of Ichiro (mostly his Calbee and Tommy ID rookie cards) which, judging from the listings, are being targeted towards American collectors of Ichiro (given away by the fact that they use English in their listings, which is extremely rare on Yahoo Auctions).

So that leaves us with 7 graded cards for the Japanese collector?

No, 5 of those cards are of Shohei Ohtani or Hideo Nomo, also targeted towards Americans for obvious reasons.

So just 2?

Yes, there is a 1967 Kabaya Leaf card of Yoshinobu Yoda and a 1992 BBM card autographed by Sadaharu Oh which could be of interest to Japanese collectors.

Shigeo Nagashima, the most popular player in Japanese history and the #1 guy with Japanese collectors doesn't have a single graded card for sale at this time.  Oh just has the one.  Most other members of the Japanese hall of fame also have zero (in fact....EVERY other member of the Japanese hall of fame has zero).

2. OK, no grading services, but people can still care about condition, right?

Of course, before grading services entered the US market collectors already had a fairly well developed system of grading cards (which PSA just copied) from poor to mint and assigning differential prices based on grades.  Doesn't the Japanese hobby do something like that?

In a word, no.

This can also  be seen in the way cards are listed on Yahoo Auctions.  Basically everything (except those 49) are "raw" cards, which American sellers on Ebay will almost always tell buyers what condition it is in - VG, EX, Nmt, etc (often with a caveat about them not being pro graders, etc).

These terms basically do not exist in the Japanese hobby, nor is there any Japanese equivalent.

Individual card listings on Yahoo Auctions almost never mention condition at all.  The Japanese hobby doesn't have a universally accepted grading system like in the US.

This isn't to say that condition is 100% absent from listings.  Some sellers use a 3 tier grading system which is as complex as it gets here:

美品 (bihin) = "Beautiful item"
並品 (nami hin) = "Average item"
ジャンク品 (janku hin) = "junk item"

A "beautiful item" could probably fall anywhere Ex and up, an "average Item" would be more like mid-grade, and a "junk item" would probably be in the p/f/g range.  But these categories are extremely subjective and not widely recognized as having a specific meaning, only a few sellers use them.

For the majority, at least with vintage cards, the only mention made of condition is a boilerplate disclaimer that you see everywhere which roughly translates as:

"These cards are old, they may have wear and tear on them.  Buyers expecting the item to be like new please refrain from bidding."  

This applies even to high end items.  Here is a 1987 Calbee complete set for sale right now:
This is an extremely rare and valuable item: its asking price is 145,000 Yen (about 1200 US$), which is a bit on the high side but not outrageous.  

 But look at that listing. You've got 3 grainy pictures in which you can't tell anything about the condition.  And the description of the condition, in its entirety is this:


"Please confirm (the condition) by looking at the pictures.  There are many in nice condition, but two have been written on with magic marker. There are also cards with creases."

This description is so vague for all the buyer knows they could be getting a set that is 90% Nrmt with a few lower grade, or one that is almost entirely mid grade with some in poor condition, or even one that is mostly lower grade with a few that are extremely low grade.

This isn't, I hasten to add, a bad seller - ALL listings on Yahoo Auctions look like this.  Japanese buyers collect cards for the cards and not for the condition. This isn't to say that condition is irrelevant to the hobby,  nobody likes cards that are creased and a new one looks nice, but the insane nit-picking of minor stuff differences in grade that dominates the US hobby is completely non existent in Japan.

3. Great!  Of course this is a good thing, right?  Right?

You'd think so, right?  As I said at the start, I absolutely hate the obsession with condition that dominates the American hobby that I grew up with, so shouldn't I be thrilled that I collect cards in a market where nobody cares about that?

The answer to that is that kind of sort of I am a bit.  And the reasons for that are I guess self evident - one of my pet peeves is not here so I am not annoyed by it.  Which is cool....but not as cool as you'd think, hence the equivocation in my answer.  There is a real disadvantage to this lack of insanity which I have also discovered.

That disadvantage lies in one of the beneficial side effects of the American hobby's obsession with condition.  It has created an affordable niche market for the "mid grade" collector.  Since all the big money in the hobby goes to  high end stuff, there are plenty of bargains around for guys like me who don't care about condition and just want to put sets together.  A card that sells for $1,000 in PSA 9 can probably be had for 10-20$ in an attractive mid grade, which means that putting sets from the 60s and 70s (or even earlier) remains an affordable option.

That steep "mid grade discount" doesn't exist in Japan.  If a card is expensive, then its expensive no matter what condition it is in (unless it is absolutely destroyed).  You can't find bargains on the sought after stuff just based on the fact that it is lower grade like you can with American cards.  For example, I've been trying to find a cheap copy of card #1 from the 1973 Calbee set featuring Shigeo Nagashima for the longest time.  Every copy that goes up on Yahoo Auctions however always gets bid up into the hundreds of dollars.  Even if its got a crease in it, or well rounded corners, people here are bidding on the card rather than the condition (again, except for true beaters) and will pay the same money for a copy that would probably grade around vg as they would for one that would grade exmt.  

So the grass is sort of greener on this side of the fence in some respects, but there are a few brown patches as well!


  1. I wish I could convince myself that condition doesn't matter, because I'd save a ton of money. Unfortunately... it's deeply embedded into my collecting ways that it does matter.

    1. We've all been (excuse the pun) conditioned to care about condition!

  2. Nice write up! Interestingly, PSA opened a shop up in Japan to handle Japanese submissions by Japanese collectors so the language barrier can be overcome. Evidently they see an untapped market with Japanese collectors. I would not be surprised if you see a huge uptick in Japanese interest in graded cards as they get hooked and addicted to Set Registries. I’m with you though...i just want to collect and make sets and never look at the condition unless the card/menko is totally roached. It is refreshing collecting in Japan for sure

    1. Ah, I was wondering how long it would take them to invade these shores. Their population reports for Calbees were ridiculously low the last I checked (last year) and they didn't even have complete checklists for any set, so they really need to get their acts together if they want that to work.

      I'm not too sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, I'm not a graded card guy so I don't really care and will get annoyed if everyone starts snapping up the best cards to get graded, driving the price of them out of my reach. On the other, if that results in the prices of mid grade stuff going down, I'm OK with that!

      For the time being though I'll just enjoy strolling through YAJ listings without condition being mentioned anywhere!

    2. Just checked and found their new (since November) Japanese language site.

      And yup, despite being in Japanese their Calbee registry is almost empty and doesn't even have a full checklist (the 1973 for example only has 64 graded cards total and only lists about 25 or so cards in the checklist).

      At a minimum they need to get on that if they want to be taken seriously.

  3. I’m fairly impartial to grading since it doesn’t affect me as a Sumo Card/menko collector, but it will hit the Japanese baseball card hobby first. It’ll be interesting to see how that affects your set-collecting efforts. I’m not convinced it’ll be a good thing. Once these first rounds of graded cards get back into the Japanese market through PSA’s Tokyo Office, I’d be curious to see what you are seeing. Are there a lot of Japanese baseball card collectors in Japan do you think? Here is what PSA is saying...

    After researching, visiting and gauging the viability of the Japanese market, PSA officials determined that now presents the right time to make its formal entrance into the country.
    With a population of more than 127 million people, Japan represents an incredibly untapped market for sports and non-sports collectors alike.
    “Because the practice of authenticating and grading cards is just now gaining popularity in Japan, there is an enormous opportunity to attract new consumers and future hobbyists to the benefits of trading card grading,” said Aram.

    One thing they mention is the interest in gaming card grading which I hadn’t really thought of.

    1. So far it doesn't seem they have had any impact given what is available on Yahoo Auctions, but they just started so it might be interesting to see how that changes in the next year or so.

      I really hope it doesn't have an effect on prices until AFTER I've finished my 75-76 Calbee set, but that could take years.

      I can imagine those 1973 Calbee Sumo cards would be a likely target for grading given how much they sell for.

  4. One of the main reasons that PSA got into this business back in the early 1990s, according to their advertisements in magazines, was to provide authentification and prevent fraud by fake cards. They stumbled upon the set registry and it really took off. I can’t imagine there are many fakes in Japan(i might be wrong, but hope I am right) so this untapped market they mention has to be almost exclusively set registry chasers. No doubt, it is addicting. Would be interesting to do an interview with Tony Aram.

    1. I think the "fraud" was less fakes (which are pretty rare for cards, autographs are a different story) and more with sellers exaggerating the condition of cards, which is way more common.

      This I think is where they'll face an uphill battle in Japan. Collectors in the US already cared about condition a lot when PSA showed up, so they were offering a service to people who already had a demand for it. As I state in the post collectors here aren't anywhere near as sensitive to condition, so if they are going to make their business work they'll have to try convincing collectors that this is something they should care about AND something they should pay PSA to provide a service for, which is a harder sell.

      They might do well with the autograph authentication though, the market here is flooded with fakes. But getting experts is going to be a challenge, given that probably none of their US staff know how to read Japanese signatures.

    2. Oh and yes, the set registry might have some appeal down the road, but its the sort of thing where you need enough people to buy into their service in the first place for bragging rights to the #1 set in their registry to have any meaning. I could probably pretty easily have the #1 Calbee sets for almost any year now if I just submitted a few of my cards to them....but why would I if nobody here cares?

  5. I don't grade cards and I'm not too concerned with condition for vintage cards. Ironically I think the only graded card I've ever bought was that 1973 Calbee Nagashima card. It was graded a 3 (VG). Inspired by you and your Baseball Card Liberation Front I freed it from its plastic prison.

    1. Yes, I love what you did with your Nagashima! That was 1/5 of the entire number of that card that had been slabbed!

      I'm still on the hunt for one, you got an amazing deal on it!

  6. Great blog post (as always) Sean. I, too, get very fatigued by the running commentary of graded cards, graded card collectors, those that "flip" cards, those that play "graded card roulette" (i.e. buy a graded card, crack it out of the case, and continue to re-submit until they get the grade they want, then sell it for much profit). Here's where I think card grading has gone off the rails, and no doubt it was started as a good intent to help the hobby (albeit mostly to make $$, which is not a bad thing). If you have two examples of the same card, and both are the same in grade in every way, and one is graded and the other is raw, the graded one will go for MUCH higher. In other words, even though the mantra on Net 54 is "buy the card, not the holder," you are actually buying the holder, as the holder itself has increased the perceived value of the card.

    I have owned three graded cards, all 1967 Kabaya-Leaf, and I quickly cracked them out of the cases and threw the cases away and put the cards into my Ultra Pro sheets in my binder. Baseball cards, like comic books, are meant to be held, looked at, and enjoyed.

  7. Hi Jay! Yeah, that "buying the holder" thing is just lost on me, I don't get the attraction. I have a few graded cards but those were ones I bought simply because they were a good price for the card in that grade and not because they were in a slab. I've cracked some of them out too, though some I keep in just because its more convenient to leave them there.

    If I was plunking down $1000 for cards then I'd be much more likely to appreciate the value of graded cards since they do at least protect you from the danger of sellers inflating the grades of their cards. But I'm not in that league!

  8. I shop for BBM pack lots quite often and for modern cards I of course want them in good condition, but the amount of sellers stringing up modern cards or pack lots in rubber bands is awful. passed on many lots because of it