Tim’s Take: Is Cleaning Cards a Dirty Business?

All we are is dust in the wind…

Those words, made immortal by the poetic genius of Kansas, were true when they were written and are true today. It’s also true that I hate dust, who doesn’t? The only thing I hate more than dust is dusting. But sometimes, even our cardboard collections succumb to the annoyingly random, floating, airborne particulate. Or maybe something worse. So what do we do about it?

I think there is certainly a difficult and layered discussion that can be had regarding the differences between dusting off your cards, cleaning, restoration, and alteration. We live in a world where the hobby is particularly focused on the gems, gem rates, and population counts among the best of the best. Finding the best quality so that you can maximize your “profits” is and has been, the direction the hobby has trended heavily since around 2015.

Sure, collectors have always wanted the best looking cards in the best condition possible, but since we’ve regularly eclipsed six figure sales for cards, the thoughts of dollar signs take over and the only way to get them is to grade. There is a ton of money at stake now and with half dozen or more card grading companies (the alphabet soups) that will rate your card on an arbitrary scale of 1-10 (with no industry regulation, oversight, certification, or standardized operating procedure), there’s extra incentive to help stack the deck in your favor.

Before I continue down this potential rabbit hole, keep in mind that I’m not talking about taking out the Swiffer duster once in awhile to run over your boxes, binders and bro cases. I’m not even talking about taking the dust off the individual cards themselves. I’m talking about where we draw the line between wiping off a thumb print or some dust particles vs. physically changing or altering the state of a card.

Why should we care? Too many folks seem perfectly fine with cleaning, restoring, or even altering cards. Look, this is nothing new to the hobby. Just check out this Chicago Tribune article from 1989!!

But it’s become kind of a bigger deal now especially with the over-reliance on third party services to grade cards, that are generally supplied with no knowledge of cleaning or alteration. With would-be treasure hunters chasing the “10s”, it’s very lucrative to do whatever possible to guarantee the biggest return.

Cards like this 1933-34 World Wide Gum Ice Kings card would no doubt benefit from card cleaning and/or restoration. But the question is if it would it be ethical to do so, especially if the end goal is to re-sell the card?

Fall short with grades sub-8? No problem. Crack the slab, “clean” it up, and send it to another of the alphabet soups. Maybe this time it will come back perfect, or closer to it. When there’s no consistency or rules in the grading industry, it’s a real scenario that happens with thousands, maybe millions of cards.

Now how does your precious pop count look?

Companies like Dick Towle’s Gone With The Stain (now run by his family), have been around for a long time, offering cleaning or restoring services for cards. More recent companies like TCG Card Care or Kurt’s Card Care  also provide folks with products they can order to DIY their own cleaning. 

Does it work? These companies wouldn’t exist very long if it didn’t. The current incarnation of GWS posts some success stories on their website, talking about taking vintage cards from 4 grades to 6’s or higher. In the vintage realm, that can mean the difference of tens of thousands of dollars when those come up for sale.

Companies like Kurt’s Card Care sells kits such as these to “clean, fix, and restore your cards.” [Image courtesy of Kurt’s Card Care]
Over a year ago, KCC assisted with a Justin Herbert card, removing a surface mark, and created what purportedly became a $1,000,000 card at auction. Ultimately it was a buyer beware scenario because the cleaning was disclosed, but does that make it ok to have done in the first place? The sale price obviously makes it seem so. But how many times is it not disclosed? When news of that auction came out, it was picked up by mainstream media, including ESPN. Did their reporting disclose that it had realized the price only after it had been “cleaned?” Absolutely not. Half-truths create a more exciting narrative – a false one, but exciting nonetheless.

While certainly not “apples-for-apples,” there are cross-over parallels in other industries. Think of buying a used, or “pre-owned” as they call them, car. Derogatory term or not, the used car salespeople do what they can to make a car look more appealing in order to sell it. That will inevitably include a nice wax job, paint touch up, detailed interior, tire wipe-down, etc. –  all of which you can clearly see.

Removing fountain pen ink from cards, such as on this 1939 Playball card is one of the card restoration services that Gone With the Stain offers. [Images courtesy of Gone With the Stain]
But don’t you also say “show me the CarFax” (or some equivalent, less-commercially phrase)? Wouldn’t you like to know when/if the car was in an accident, had a major repair, or had issues that needed addressed? Are you going to pay full sticker knowing there’s an aftermarket, rebuilt transmission that had additional repairs six months prior? You may not even buy it at all at that point. Same goes for a restored card. If it’s not disclosed, my guess is the collector isn’t going to be happy if and when they may find out that the card took a ten minute bath in some mystery solution.

I’m by no means an expert, but in the coin collecting world, restoration is kind of a no-no. I’ve talked to a dealer friend of mine who also does a fairly significant amount of coin transactions. He’s done it long enough that restoration is generally easy to spot and he knows that many collectors shy away from pieces that are. I’m also not a player in the comic book world, and although it’s a bit more accepted to “fluff up” pages before presentation or display, most experts know when it’s evident that paper-loss issues or coloration has been addressed, and it generally affects value. With comics and magazines, there are products and pressing services readily available that help for archival preparation.

Which brings us to the age-old debate in the world of art. While restoration is commonplace, especially for archival and museum presentation, it’s usually performed by professionals who have extensive training, utilizing advanced techniques and equipment.

Have you ever watched one of the many art cleaning videos available online? It’s a long, tedious process with multiple layers that involves high powered microscopes, lasers, and imagining machines. It’s also almost always disclosed once things come to market. If you aren’t an expert at art or art restoration, this is certainly approaching “don’t try this at home” territory. Repairs to damage detracts from art value because it is a clear admission that there are issues with the original. Depending on the media used (and more so if there’s multiple), repairs become extremely expensive and won’t be recouped in a market transaction.

When you have major personalities in the card collecting industry supporting certain levels of cleaning or restoration, it can send mixed messages to collectors about what is or isn’t acceptable. A lot of times, these folks have a vested interest in cards being grading at higher levels. Nat Turner (CEO of Collectors, who own PSA) went on record last year over a long X (formerly Twitter) conversation saying that it’s ok if you wipe cards down before sending them in.

The problem is there’s no “rule book,” there’s no “generally accepted practice,” and there’s no “rule of thumb” on what that entails.

In fact, there’s no rule at all, and even the professionals, who have graded and authenticated cards for decades either can’t always tell, or choose not to, and get things wrong. If Nat or his staff use microfiber cloths in their own submissions, it’s difficult to then tell collector’s they can’t or shouldn’t. But when it goes wrong, someone’s left holding the bag. Peter Steinberg from SGC said over a year ago on the NEO Cards podcast that they’ve spent a ton of money every year on “buybacks” to help remove altered cards that have entered the market. That just means someone, whether it be a grading expert, company intern, or the fancy AI designed to find these things, didn’t do their job.

The overall point is that if you can’t tell, you can’t tell. That a huge issue and could continue to be problematic for years to come.  If you are fine with alterations, cleaning, or doctoring, none of this may be of concern to you. Just remember to do your research on higher end purchases so you don’t end up with something that may be too good to be true.

Don’t forget that the very first card graded by PSA, the coveted 1909-11 T-206 Honus Wagner, was altered (trimmed). The only thing clear on this issue is that there is nothing clear as to what is acceptable or crosses the line. 

Tim Parish is a writer-at-large for Puck Junk. Follow him on X/Twitter @therealdfg.

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Author: Tim Parish

Tim is a hockey nut and music aficionado who, despite a busy life, somehow still finds time for collecting. He's been a sports card collector for over three decades and his collecting habits have evolved many times over the years. Tim has collected all the major sports, but has always come back to hockey and hockey card collecting. It’s a lifelong hobby, so he’s in no hurry and not going anywhere anytime soon. Highly opinionated and never wrong, Tim’s world view of hockey is as keen as any talking head or insider on a major sports network; the only thing missing are the “unnamed sources.” Sarcasm is also his strong suit. You can find Tim and his warped ramblings on Twitter @TheRealDFG.

4 thoughts on “Tim’s Take: Is Cleaning Cards a Dirty Business?”

  1. I think it is O.K. to restore – as you intending the card to be as it came out of the pack – even it there was manufacturing defects out of the pack.

    Technology is always advancing – if there were some ways to remove all (or some) the creases on the Earl Robinson card – I think most collectors would do it.

    1. That Earl Robinson card also has a lot of glue on the back of it. I wonder how much better it would look if I sent it in for restoration…

    2. There’s no doubt a lot of collectors would want to take advantage of advanced technology and maybe even AI type services to restore a card like that Earl Robinson. But here’s a hypothetical question…If you bought a card that you later found out was “restored” because it wasn’t disclosed in your purchase, would it make a difference to you?

      Or, same question, but you only found out because it was sent in for grading and came back as “ALTERED”.

      I think that was where my point was heading. Cleaning, restoration, etc. from a collecting standpoint or archival goal is far different from using the same techniques to “fool” someone into thinking a Cavalier is a Corvette. But for the record, I’m also OK with things, up to a point.

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