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Complete Counterfeit Card Guide: Figure Out If Your Sports Cards Are Authentic

Fake and Counterfeit Vintage Baseball Card Guide

Discover tips, tricks, and tests to help determine authenticity of sports cards.  Counterfeits are rampant in this hobby; this guide will reveal the "Red-Flags" to look for before buying raw or ungraded cards.

Defining Fake (Counterfeit) Versus Reprints 

Before getting into the signs to look for regarding authentic vs fake cards, it will be best to start with defining what a fake/counterfeit card is versus a reprint.  A fake/counterfeit card is a card created to deceive or fool someone into thinking it is an authentic card.  People will go to great measures to trick collectors.   This includes things like making copies of authentic cards, soaking them in tea to make the paper appear older, or removing markers indicating a reprint.  The purpose of fakes/counterfeits is to trick and mislead someone into paying good money for what they think is an authentic card.  These cards have no place in the hobby.  Reprints are cards that were printed years after the original release, but explicitly contain the word "REPRINT" or something along those lines on the back.  These are usually released as part of tributes sets.  They can also be used as fills in for expensive cards when collectors cannot afford certain key cards (example T206 Wagner).    An example of a tribute set is the 1952 Topps Archives sets, which was released in 1983 and made to commemorate the first set Topps made.  

How to Identify Authentic Cards

Tip #1- If it is too good to be true, it probably is! If you are looking at a collection of all 1980s and 90s cards, but there is a 1952 Topps Mantle, there is a high probability is is not real! But if the collection contains hundreds of cards from the 1950s, it is definitely possible the card is real.  

Tip #2- Get familiar with commons from the same year.  They can be had for cheap will come in handy.  You can get familiar with the print style, card stock, signs of wear, borders, and colors.  Topps and Bowman cards from the 1950s and 60s used the same printing style so examine this first can be helpful in determining authenticity.

Print Style/Pattern

Vintage cards were printed in a way where the makeup of the images show a hexagonal or "honeycomb" matrix.  this can be seen when looking very closely (sometimes squinting) or using a jeweler's loupe.  The eyes and nose you see is a zoomed in image of a 1954 Topps Bill Skowron.  See the red arrow pointing out the "honeycomb" matrix in the image.  This will be discussed more in the "Use a Loupe" section below. 


Card Stock

The majority of vintage baseball cards were printed on sturdy and thick cardboard.  The card itself should stay firm when picked up.  Some cheaper counterfeits are printed on thin paper and appear flimsy.  An exception to this is tobacco cards. Most were printed in thin and fragile cardboard.  

Signs of Wear

The majority of vintage cards were opened from packs by kids and sorted, organized, and played with.  As a result most cards will show at least some degree of being handled, even if it is just light corner or edge wear.  If a card looks pristine, it is best to take a closer look to confirm authenticity. 


Normal corner wear, creasing, and surface scuffs are evident on this authentic 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle 

Borders & Centering

For cards that have white borders, the white typically ages some over time and won't be vivid bright white.  Newer fakes sometimes will have a white border which looks as white as printer paper.  Centering of the card is also something to keep an eye on.  Quality control was poor (especially in the 70s and earlier) and many images were printed off centered and miscut. If a card is dead centered, this can sometimes be the sign of a fake (but not always).

Coloring & Clarity

Most vintage cards were printed with crisp images and vivid, consistent colors.  Hazy logos/images and washed out colors can sometimes be a sign of counterfeits.  

Most Commonly Faked Sports Cards

#1. T206 Honus Wagner
#2. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle 
#3. 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan Rookie
#4. 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky Rookie
#5. 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #144
#6. 1933 Goudey Lou Gehrig #160

Common Fakes

How To Identify Fake Cards

Look For Artificially Aged Cards

A common practice among counterfeiters is to soak fake cards in tea.  This browns the paper and makes it looks aged.  This process also tends to show a brown "crackling" or "spidering" effect.  Artificially aged reprints typically show both brown edges and spidering, both of which are massive red flags.  These are commonly seen on eBay and Facebook Marketplace.


Both examples show "spidering" or "crackling" of brown throughout the card.  This is a red flag that the card was artificially aged by dipping the card in tea

Use A Loop To Look At Print Style

Use a Loop

As mentioned earlier, it is prudent to compare authentic common cards (ideally from the same set) to the card you are buying.  It is also worth buying a jeweler's loupe magnifier.  They only cost ~$10 and can come in handy to compare the print pattern. See the examples below.  The 1954 Bill Skowron is authentic.  If you look closely enough with the naked eye you can start to see the "honeycomb" matrix.  The print style is more evident when using the loupe. In areas of the card that contain more white, some dots of varying size, shape, and color are evident.  These are typical on an authentic cards from the 1950s and 50s.  The 1952 Bowman Mickey Mantle example is a well done counterfeit.  As you can see the print style contains all dots which are exactly the same size. No "honeycomb" matrix is seen.


1954 Topps Skowron (Authentic)


1954 Topps Skowron Under Loupe (Authentic)


1952 Bowman Mantle (Counterfeit)


1954 Topps Skowron (Authentic)


1954 Topps Skowron Under Loupe (Authentic)


1952 Bowman Mantle  Under Loupe (Counterfeit)

Black Light Test

Another investment worth while is a black light.  Paper from older cards show up a dull purple when a black light is shined on them.  More modern paper reflects the light as bright blue.  This test can certainly weed out some counterfeits but just because it reflects purple does not automatically indicate the card is real.  Some fakes contain older paper and will still show up dull purple. 


Check Listing Details

A lot of times listings on eBay or other marketplaces will say "attic find" or "unknown authenticity".  These are also red flags and are commonly used terms by scammers trying to take advantage of collectors.

How To Prevent Buying Counterfeit Cards

Do Your Research

Buying ungraded cards can be a gamble, especially if you aren't sure what to look for.  Spend a lot of time handling vintage cards of common players so you know what they should look like.  Study the cards with loupe magnification and closely examine the colors and print style. Inspect the card stock and wear as well.  If you aren't sure don't buy the card.

Buy From Reputable Sources

With so many fakes out there the safest route to buy cards are from reputable and trusted sources.  Check out dealers at your local card show who are regulars.  Consider buying from eBay sellers with excellent feedback or from larger auction houses.  Many auction houses guarantee cards purchased from them.

Be Careful With Raw Commonly Faked Cards

See the section above for "Most Commonly Faked Cards". If you are looking to purchase a T206 Wagner, 1952 Topps Mantle, rookies of Jordan or Gretzky, or any other high dollar card, be very careful! Scammers typically fake high dollar cards rather than commons.  If nothing else these cards should raise a flag to take a closer look.

Remember, if the deal is too good to be true, it probably is!

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