Is ‘Buyer Beware’ always appropriate for our hobby?

(Editor’s Note: This is a “participation” article. Please read through to the end and consider responding. Responses will be reported in a follow-up piece coming soon.)

By Jeffrey S. Copeland

The principle of caveat emptor—which means, basically, “let the buyer beware”—holds that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality of goods before making a purchase and that the buyer has no recourse against the seller if the goods are not as expected. In many circumstances involving transactions in our daily lives, this may be considered appropriate. However, should this always be the rule of thumb in our hobby?

This card of Chief Bender, which was bought from a dealer, was determined to be altered when it was sent in to be graded.

I’d say at least 90 percent of my friends and acquaintances collect cards and memorabilia for the sheer love of it: for recapturing fond memories of collecting in one’s youth, for the “thrill of the chase” while completing sets, for the camaraderie built between and among collectors and dealers, for studying the history of players and their respective sports—and many other similar reasons. In short, most of the rank-and-file collectors I know are not in the hobby to make money; they are involved for the pure joy that comes while building collections.

Because monetary gain is typically not the primary reason behind the transactions collectors make in our hobby and enjoyment is most often at the forefront instead, should caveat emptor always be the guiding principle of our dealings at card shows and other venues where we purchase items for our collections? Before responding to this question, consider the following situation I found myself in recently – a situation I’m sure many of you have also experienced in one way or another.

First, here is a little background I believe pertinent to this situation. I love all vintage cards, in both the sports and non-sports arenas, but my true passion since the early 1980s has been collecting the portrait cards and their back variations from the T206 tobacco card set. I purchased my first T206 card in about 1981 from one of the true icons and good guys of our hobby, Kit Young of Kit Young Cards—and I’ve been hooked on that set ever since. I know I’ll never have the means to acquire the Honus Wagner card, but I do have examples of the other tough portraits and I am slowly whittling down my wantlist of the few cards I still need.

Through the years, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about the T206 set, and every time the opportunity presented itself, I’ve visited with dealers and other collectors who share my same passion for these historic cards. I’m not saying I’m an expert on this set, but for almost 35 years this has been the primary focus of my collection, so I’d say my knowledge of these cards is fairly good. With that background established, I’ll now move to the situation in which I recently found myself.

A couple of months ago, while visiting St. Louis, Missouri, I was able to attend the “Westport Card Show,” one of the finest shows in the Midwest. I knew several of the dealers set up there and was having a great time browsing around the room when I saw it in a dealer case: a T206 Chief Bender portrait card. In my opinion, this card is one of the most beautiful in the set because of the combination of colors on the card and the striking image of Bender’s face.

I already had the card, but the example in my collection was one I purchased early on in the “lean pocketbook” stage of my collecting life, and it might best be described as looking as if an angry badger had chewed on it some. I had always wanted to do an upgrade, but I hadn’t yet found one in the condition and price range I had in mind. That is, not until I spotted this one.

The dealer, who has a superb reputation in our hobby, took the card out of the case and allowed me to study it for about five minutes as I checked everything I knew to examine when holding a T206. After a short period of negotiation, with a little give and take on both sides, we agreed upon a price we both felt to be fair—$250—and the card was mine. I was thrilled and showed Chief Bender off to all my dealer friends and others I knew as I continued around the room. Actually, I was more than thrilled—I was ecstatic to have such a beautiful card for which I had been searching for a very long time.

The next day I packed up Mr. Bender and sent him off for grading to one of the “Big Three” grading/authentication services and made a silent vow not to go to the mailbox every day to wait for the mail carrier until the card was returned. Finally, about two and a half weeks later, my mail carrier, a serious card collector himself, knocked on my door and delivered the box just as I was about to finish my lunch. With hands shaking, I carefully cut through the tape on the box, removed the packing, and reached in for the hard plastic I knew would now be around the card. However, I couldn’t feel it inside, so I turned the box upside down until a thin card saver plopped on the table, the same card saver I had used to send in the card. Attached to the card saver was a sticker that said, in bold letters, “Evidence of Trimming/Altering.”

As a result of this alteration, they had chosen not to grade and encapsulate the card.

The condition-challenged card Jeffrey Copeland was replacing when he purchased a different Chief Bender card at a card show.

My heart sank as the full import of those words hit me. Immediately, two things came to mind. First, I got angry—with myself. Even with nearly 35 years of study of these cards, I had been fooled. Next, when my anger subsided, I started wondering what I should/could do about the situation.

About an hour later, I called a good friend of mine who is a prominent card dealer at shows in the Midwest to ask for his advice.

The first thing we decided upon was that the dealer from whom I purchased the card was as honest as it comes, so we were certain he had no idea Mr. Bender had been doctored when he sold him to me. After agreeing upon that, our discussion then moved to what, for lack of a better term, we both saw as a “trend” that seems to be picking up steam in the card collecting hobby.

This “trend,” which has been discussed quite a lot in the past year at shows (I even heard several of our high-profile dealers talking about this at The National this past year in Chicago) has shown the development of a “shared” responsibility between dealers and buyers when this situation comes up. The reason for this shared responsibility has everything to do with the fact that those who doctor cards today have such incredible technology at their disposal for doing their disreputable deeds that it is nearly impossible for anyone—dealer or collector—to detect what has been done to alter a card.

Under this doctrine of shared responsibility in these situations, more and more stories are emerging of dealers refunding to the buyer “one half” of the original purchase price so that the loss is divided equally between the two parties. The justification for this is once again related to the ever-increasing skill developed by those who doctor and alter cards and related items.

Typically, dealers aren’t experts in the area of every item they sell and, therefore, can end up with a bad purchase; the same can hold true for buyers, no matter how much they study in a given area. Inside this same argument, some consider that dealers also perform a service for collectors by taking risks when buying inventory, inventory that helps keep individual collections growing and the hobby at large alive. In other words, even though it is true that many dealers are first and foremost attempting to build profit, at the same time they provide a service to collectors; therefore, it is only right that both parties share in the loss. Whether one believes this line of reasoning or not, the fact of the matter is that this model is being used more and more these days when transactions like my Chief Bender transaction take place.

Others—both dealers and collectors alike—believe otherwise. They believe no matter how skilled those who doctor cards have become and how difficult it is to determine if something has been done to a card, the dealer should refund the entire purchase price to the buyer when a card or related item has been shown to be tampered with and is, therefore, not in original condition.

Still another camp believes there is absolutely no debate needed here—that caveat emptor rules the day, and the buyer is just out of luck. After all, this group states, the card wasn’t graded or certified when sold, so the buyer should have used his/her skills when examining the card to determine if the card was in the desired state. If the buyer fully examined the card and then got fooled, too bad. In this scenario, the dealer has no follow-up responsibility whatsoever.

There is yet another very small group that embraces the notion of caveat emptor in yet another way. They believe since the card was purchased in “raw” condition, the buyer should simply take the doctored card to another show and try to sell or trade it to someone else without revealing the card’s flaw. The original buyer would then achieve a measure of re-compensation, and the new buyer would be none the wiser.

After discussing these areas, my friend suggested I call the dealer who sold me Mr. Bender to see if he had a policy he followed when such situations did come up. I thought that was a fine idea, but I was still upset I hadn’t been able to determine the card had been doctored. Therefore, I wanted one other piece of information before I called the dealer.

From an interview I had done a little over a year ago, I knew a person high up in the grading/authentication company where I sent my card. I called him and asked if he could provide any more light on exactly how Mr. Bender had been doctored. I know I can be a tad naive at times, but what I learned from him was quite shocking to me.

He said a new generation of laser cutters has found its way into the hands of those who alter cards, and their work is very difficult to detect with the naked eye, especially at a card show where the lighting isn’t always the best. Apparently, these laser cutters can trim cards ever so slightly so that it is possible in some cases to remove imperfections and make the card look several grades higher. It didn’t make me feel any better to know I had been fooled by new technology, but at least I understood more how my years of study had been surmounted by a crook. I was also given additional information about new ways cards can be colored, can have imperfections removed, and can even be given new gloss.

Still stunned by what I had just learned, I dialed the phone again and called the dealer. I introduced myself and, fortunately, he remembered me and his sale of the Chief Bender card at the show. I explained the situation while making sure he knew I was not accusing him of anything. I presented the facts of the matter as clearly and precisely as I could. When I finished with as many details as I felt appropriate, I then asked him what, if anything, he did when such situations come up.

I’m not yet going to say how the dealer responded to me. Instead, I am going to end this story for now and ask what you feel should be done in situations like this. I know, I know—I can already hear the groans and moans of some readers, but I feel this is an area of great importance to those of us who love the hobby.

What do you believe the dealer should have done about Mr. Bender?

Please take the time to study the choices listed below and then send me your thoughts. You can simply send the number of the response you feel is most appropriate, or you can provide the number and give me your justification with it. In any case, I’ll tally the responses, omit your names to protect your identities, and give a full report of the breakdown of replies in an upcoming issue. Please send your responses to me at jscottcope@gmail.com. In the meantime, happy collecting—and be careful out there.

Choice 1: Caveat Emptor: The buyer is just out of luck and the dealer has no further responsibility.

Choice 2: Shared responsibility: The dealer should refund one half of the original purchase price to the buyer.

Choice 3: The dealer should refund the entire purchase price to the buyer.

Choice 4: The buyer should take the card, since it is in “raw” condition, to another show and attempt to sell it to another collector or dealer without disclosing its flaw.
I look forward to your responses. u

Jeffrey S. Copeland is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Digest, as well as an author. He can be reached at jscottcope@gmail.com.

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