Getting Cut by Card Cutters
by Kurt Kuersteiner (© 1998 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards for The Wrapper Magazine #157, Aug '98)
While trading some older cards recently, the suspicion on trimming came up. The set in question was a series of Horror Monster Green. A few of the cards were shorter than others by as much as 1/8 an inch. Size variations in this series are common (especially trimmed panels) but we wanted to make sure it wasn't done to doctor the grade.
The more we discussed possible tampering, the more I realized how much things in the hobby had changed in recent years. It wasn't too long ago that tampering with non-sports cards was a rare occurrence indeed. But the problem has increased due to two obvious reasons: 1.) The prices of non-sports sets have soared and made tampering more profitable. 2.) When the sports card market collapsed, the non-sports community inherited a few new dealers who did not join our hobby because they loved the cards, but because they loved the profits.
This is not an attempt to blame sports card dealers for our current woes, because the same problems existed well before they entered the hobby. But we should recognize that as our hobby grows, so do certain problems. It's a lot like a small town: The bigger it gets, the more crime increases.
Here then is a humble checklist I use when considering if smaller cards have been trimmed. I'm sure it's not a perfect list, but if it helps at all, it's worth mulling over.
First, do the cards in question have a history of trimming errors? Topps has a pretty good track record of uniform cutting. They use a large cookie cutter (die cut) device that keeps size consistent (centering is another problem altogether). But smaller companies like NuCard and Rosan used guillotine cutters for quite a number of years. The Pressmen stick a stack on the table, measure it out, and slide it under a long blade that cuts it evenly with extreme pressure. The problem is that the sheets on the bottom shift a little during the operation and miscuts can occur. As the Pressman keeps restacking these strips and cutting them down to smaller and smaller panels, the problem can get worse. One often encounters cards that are slightly bigger too, due to the same problem in reverse.
If the set in question is commonly miscut, that doesn't mean the cards are tamper free. But it does suggest there is another plausible explanation besides trimming. Another question to ask is where do the cards come from? Do you know the original owner? Is it a collector who bought them as a kid? If so, is it someone you trust? Is it a dealer you know and does he know anything about the guy he bought the cards from? Will the dealer stand behind them if there is any problem? This might seem like a lot of questions to ask, and no doubt, some would be annoyed that you dared to waste their time. But if a set is not uniform in size, you are certainly entitled to investigate the cause. Ask other dealers and collectors to share their experience in the matter. The more you know, the safer you are.
Another precaution is to look at the card itself. Is it cut clean and even? Guillotine cuts are very straight and almost always at exact 90 degree angles, while scissors are less precise. X-acto knives will sometimes leave traces around the cut mark. (If you see other slices near the edge, avoid the card!) Is the card short lengthwise and widthwise? Card cutters often need to cut all sides to sharpen up all four corners. The chances that a Pressman miscut the same card twice isn't as likely. (Since the width is less, the shifting occures less dramatically.)
Yet even with these precautions, if a card is short, you can never be completely positive someone didn't do a great job trimming it. Heck, they might even work at a print shop and have all the right gear! You would think the cheap sets would be safe from trimming, and in most cases, they are. But sometimes crooks are really cheap when it comes to crime. (That's how they nailed Al Capone.) The best prevention is knowing as much as you can about the cards and their previous owner. If they're people you trust, you're probably all right.
One other note while on the subject of tampering: Collectors of colored bordered cards (like Outer Limits) need to beware of "touch ups". This occurs when someone takes a colored marker and tries to cover any white chipping on the corners or along the card edge. It's very easy to detect "touch ups" by looking at the edge of the card. The ink will bleed through the various layers of cardboard and you'll notice dark blotches when looking at the side (instead of a gray or white edge). Printers never print on the side of a card! Any ink there means tampering!
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