Like the modern hobby boom itself, HGA grading is a phenomenon that sprang from some of the darkest years many of us have ever known, at least on a societal level — the COVID-19 pandemic.
As 2020 gave way to 2021, and as the big, established grading companies wallowed in an avalanche of submissions spurred on by ever-escalating card prices, new faces and names began to emerge on the hobby scene promising to help move the entire industry forward.
That’s where we find the first mentions of HGA grading as the hobby press and forums began to pick up the story of this young company making big promises.
So, how have things played out?
We’ll get to that in a minute because, first, we need to cover the basics, starting with …
HGA stands for “Hybrid Grading Approach,” so, technically, saying “HGA Grading” is redundant. But that’s the term that sort of stuck, so we’ll go with it here.
Anyway, as you might have guessed from the name and from our introduction above, HGA is a grading company in the same vein as PSA, BGS, SGC, and other players in the authentication and grading field.
The basic business model for HGA grading is the same as for the other companies, too — collectors send cards in to be graded, and HGA evaluates the cards for condition and assigns a grade. They encase each card in a slab marked with the grade and then send it back to the submitter.
But it’s tough to stand out in a field crowded with longstanding heavyweight competitors, so HGA had to be different if they had any hope of success.
While HGA indeed offers services that appear to be similar to all the others on the surface, there are some key differences. Here are the big ones:
HGA Grading Uses Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Yep, you read that right: HGA employs a suite of software tools to programmatically determine the grade of each card.
According to the HGA website, their tools allow them to scan each card at an ultra-high resolution and then to analyze the resulting image for the usual card qualities: edge and corner sharpness, print quality, surface gloss, and all the rest.
It almost sounds like an outlandish proposition until you consider the wonders around us: self-driving cars, missions to Mars (maybe), deep fakes, and all the rest.
Does it work? More on that in a bit.
But first, this technology also allows HGA to excel in one area where the big boys have had trouble keeping up …
Fast Turnaround Time
While PSA and all the rest watched their backlogs pile up during the heart of the pandemic, HGA was leveraging their technological base to crank out their grading jobs and maintain solid delivery times.
Today, HGA offers four pricing levels, all based on turnaround time:
* FASTEST (2 business days) – $80 per card
* VERY FAST (10 business days) – $55 per card
* POPULAR (30 business days) – $40 per card
* BEST VALUE (60 business days) – $60 per card
Those prices are accurate as of the fall of 2022 and represent the sums you’d pay to have one card graded. HGA also offers bulk pricing, with a lower per-card cost, at the FASTEST and VERY FAST levels.
Compare those turnaround times with the months and months some collectors had to wait to get their cards back from PSA during the worst of days, and you can see why HGA likes to trumpet their service levels.
But that’s not all, because HGA also offers …
That probably sounds gimmicky, and you might even think I’m kidding, but I’m not — and neither is HGA.
One of the ways that HGA-graded cards really stand out visually, that makes it clear right away who graded the cards, is their use of color-coordinated slabs. For instances, if you submit a 1987 Topps Pete Rose for grading, you can expect that the grading swath at the top of the holder will come back showcasing swaths of red layer on top of — yes — woodgrain.
You know right away it’s not a PSA card, right?
Do some internet searches or visit various hobby forums, and you’ll hear varying accounts of collector experiences with HGA, and with their grading results, in particular.
As with just about any company, HGA traveled over some bumps in the road during their first couple of yeas, and that included fielding questions and complaints about the grades they hand out.
As it turns out, though, the “hybrid” bit of HGA’s name is not just lip service or the use of a buzzword. Because, while technology forms the core of their process, each grade generated by HGA’s software systems is reviewed by humans after the fact to ensure that it isn’t obviously out of line.
The bottom line is, automated grading is still a pretty young proposition, so it’s likely there will continue to be growing pains.
That said, it’s likely that other grading companies will pick up the automation gauntlet, too, if they haven’t already begun experimenting in that realm. If and when that happens, teh technology will likely jump forward with an infusion of money and interest.
Any card graded by a relatively unknown company is going to have trouble competing wth a copy in similar condition that’s slabbed by one of the big names (PSA, BGS, SGC) when it comes to the price it can command.
The same is certainly true for HGA cards right now.
If we check out recent sales on eBay for some examples, for instance, we find that 1982 Topps Cal Ripken rookie cards in HGA 8.5 (affiliate link) are selling for $20-35 as of September 2022. Meanwhile, copies slabbed by PSA in the same condition (8.5) fall in the $50-60 range (affiliate link).
HGA-graded cards have some ground to make up when it comes to selling prices on the open market, in other words. But there does seem to be a market for the HGA cards, at least.
You might also enjoy our post detailing all the current card grading companies.