Replacements and Why Your Card Doesn’t Have a Serial Number When You Think it Should

It’s common practice for manufacturers to produce serial numbered cards intended for pack issue and exclusive release formats when applicable. These are the versions that are chronicled in price guides. Here’s an example:

Frank Thomas 1999 Upper Deck View to a Thrill #V10 Double /2000
Frank Thomas 1999 Upper Deck View to a Thrill #V10 Double /2000

Manufacturers are also known to produce the same cards for the specific intention of accommodating replacement requests. It’s unclear, however, whether or not these examples were produced ahead of time or on a Just In Time basis.1

What’s a replacement card?

Let’s say a customer pulls a serial numbered card from a pack and for some reason, it’s damaged. Once noticed, the customer contacts the manufacturer to issue a formal complaint about the damaged serial numbered card. As a response, the company produces a non-serial numbered example of the card, prints or hand serial numbers it with the same exact serial number as the damaged card associated with the complaint, and sends it to the customer usually along with a letter of courtesy. This is why some cards that normally would be found with stamped serial numbers can sometimes be found with hand-written serial numbers. Regardless of how the replacement serial number was added – printed or hand-written – these cards are called Replacements. Sometimes you’ll find autographed cards without serial numbers printed where they should be; these are called, Unfulfilled Replacements. These are exceedingly rare instances but they do exist. Here’s a replacement version of the same card shown above:

Frank Thomas 1999 Upper Deck View to a Thrill #V10 Double Replacement
Frank Thomas 1999 Upper Deck View to a Thrill #V10 Double Replacement

Why do people call a lot of cards without serial numbers that should have them, Proofs?

There’s a very subtle difference between Proofs and Replacements.

  • Proofs are made to check for quality and sometimes come with small design differences as a lot of them are made in pre-final stages. Proofs generally aren’t sent to players to be autographed. Proof versions of cards, that upon final approval are intended to be autographed, will be found not only without the serial numbers, but without the autographs as well. Since these aren’t meant for public release, they won’t be sent to players for autographs. A lot of this stuff was meant to be destroyed.
  • Replacements are made with the specific intent to fulfill customer replacement requests. Replacement versions of cards intended to be autographed are sent to players to be signed and returned. This is done before the official product release to efficiently fulfill customer replacement requests. Once the replacement is returned, it’s held until a customer replacement request is received. When that happens, a serial number is added (often hand-written) to the replacement and sent to the customer in exchange for the damaged example.

For cards made without the intent of adding autographs, and depending on how far along they are in the approval process, the designs of Proofs and Replacements may be identical. In these cases, Proofs can be used as Replacements as the only thing that’s needed is the serial number.

The perception of replacement cards.

Since these are essentially just swap outs for damaged cards of the same serial number, replacement cards especially those with hand-written serial numbers can be quite valuable and collectible. Even though the serial number is hand written directly onto the card, it still exists. The hand serial numbering just makes it that much more rare and unique, and as a result much more valuable than if the serial number didn’t exist at all. Also consider this, for the replacement card to have entered the market, a customer would have had to pull a damaged card and had the desire to take action by contacting the manufacturer to issue a formal complaint. This action, in and of itself, is an incredibly rare human occurrence.

Manufactures don’t actively market this sort of accommodation and rightly so as it could lead the customer to believe they’re to expect to find damaged cards in packs. This is a very sensitive branding issue and it’s not in the companies best interest to actively broadcast how they’d manage customer complaints surrounding damaged cards. While any company with any degree of stakeholder interest should absolutely manage customer satisfaction, it should be managed carefully behind the scenes. Leaving general contact information is one thing; telling your customers they might get damaged cards is a whole other can of worms.

Why does my card not have a serial number at all but should?

With the exception of whatever was made for replacement request fulfillment, most of the stuff we see in the market that’s not serial numbered but should be is printer scrap. In manufacturing, to check for quality, a run of the product is often produced for review and final approval. The result, in this case, is a version of the card without the serial number that’s otherwise identical to the final pack-issued serial numbered version. Even though these versions are much rarer than the standard pack-issued serial numbered examples, non-serial numbered versions are commonly seen in the marketplace. While they weren’t intended for public release, they’ve made their way into the market in a variety of different ways over the years i.e., employee backdoor, equity liquidation and bankruptcy, company buyouts, etc.

Frank Thomas 1999 Bowman Chrome #256 Gold Refractor
Frank Thomas 1999 Bowman Chrome #256 Gold Refractor

The perception of non-serial numbered cards.

Here’s what we know – we can’t tell the difference between replacements with printed serial numbers and the card they replaced because the serial number on the replacement was printed in the exact same way as on the replaced card. That said and generally speaking, only hand serial numbered examples are identified as replacements.

Most non-serial numbered cards are just results of the quality check process. They’re fun to add at the right price, which is another point. These non-serial numbered versions typically only appeal to a very niche type of collector i.e., player collectors (and not all of them). Many collectors often qualify these as proof cards and much prefer the official pack-issued serial numbered variety. That said, strong returns for non-serial numbered examples are statistical rarities. I’m not saying the non-serial numbered cards don’t have value. I’m just saying they may not hold the same monetary, esteem, or intrinsic value as that of the official pack-issued serial numbered variety, which makes them by design less valuable and as such less collectible.


  1. Just In Time – JIT. ↩︎


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