The Chaos of Upper End Grading Standards

Last week, I began with my analysis of the new 2003 Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. As many of you may recall, I hailed the new larger size, and the long overdue addition of a Very Good price category. I seriously questioned, however, the need for the new Very Fine/Near Mint price category as I cannot see where it serves any useful purpose. Nor do I believe, after 33 years of grading comics, that I can split hairs well enough to consistently distinguish comics in the new VF/NM grade from comics in VF and NM. I imagine that I would hit a 75%-80% accuracy percentile in try to attribute the three grades (VF, VF/NM, and NM) in any given stack of high-grade comics, but I do not think that measure of accuracy is enough to justify the distinction.

For what it's worth, I have not seen any better grading ability among my contemporaries in the comics grading/retailing field. It seems that everyone has (to some measure...) their own particular grading criteria, and that the upper end gets a bit ridiculous. One funny story I heard at the Pittsburgh Comicon this past weekend was from a retailer who was trying to sell a long-time client a book he had graded as VF. The customer looked at the book for a long time, and then left to walk around the room. In the meantime, another dealer with a booth at the convention came by the first dealer's booth, and bought the book. A couple of hours later, the customer stopped by the first dealer's booth to apologize for not buying his comic. He explained he had found a better copy in the room (for slightly more money...), and had decided to go with the higher grade. When he showed the book he had purchased to the first dealer, he immediately recognized it as the same book he had tried to sell the buyer earlier in the day.

The real question here is whether the higher price tag fooled the buyer, or did the second dealer also mark the book with a slightly higher grade designation? Based on my experiences at conventions, I suspect both occurred. Once grading becomes a question of scrutinizing a book for minute flaws, it becomes an exercise in agony. Depending on the lighting in the room, and the skill of the grader at noting tiny blemishes, any number of slightly different perceptions can be held about any given high-grade comic book. Particularly when everyone I know has a slightly different weight that they attribute to the different possible nicks and dings that can appear within the spectrum of fragile printed pamphlets. The Overstreet Grading Guide helps codify many blemish attributions in lower grades, but as I have frequently stated, the upper end is just chaos.

I think you have to ask yourself, who is served by this total disruption of the upper end grading standards? If you agree with me that it has become nearly impossible for a private individual to accurately grade their comics in a fashion that will be consistently accepted by a broad spectrum of other comics fans, then you come to the inescapable conclusion that the grading system is currently being manipulated to benefit the professional graders. Ironically, reports have reached me on several occasions that fans dissatisfied with a CGC grade have simply broken their books out of the holder, and resubmitted the books without telling CGC. While I have never done this myself, the large number of credible anecdotes I have heard leads me to believe that CGC is also incapable of applying consistent standards. In this case, however, they win by being wrong, as they are able to collect multiple grading fees for certifying the condition of the very same comic book. The losers in this game are all the fans, and dealers, who try to sell high grade books without having them "professionally" graded. In an environment of grading chaos on high end books, buyers fear to purchase any book without third party accreditation.

For what it's worth, a senior member of the Overstreet staff was at Pittsburgh Comicon. When I quizzed him about the addition of VF/NM as a grade, he told me he honestly couldn't remember why they had decided that it should be included. He did state, however, that it was the advent of professional grading that was a primary motivation. With all the upper end comics that are now being sold at auction that have been professional graded, it seemed very important to the Overstreet staff to highlight the difference between 8.0 (VF), 9.0 (VF/NM), and 9.4 (NM). When I asked him if this was just a way of forcing everyone to get their higher grade books professional graded, he stated that trend seemed inevitable in the way that the market was currently evolving. He also stated that the Overstreet team believes that it is only a matter of time before credible competition to CGC enters the market. That being the case, they see this new grade as a reaction to market forces, not simply a device to benefit CGC. My question would be, which came first, the chicken, or the egg?

Next week: Bob Overstreet as the benevolent despot of comics...

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