Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Action Figure Grading Phenomenon: Part II - The What, Who, Why and How

Pete writes:

 Coming back into the discussion that we launched over a year ago, I bring you the second in our trilogy of articles on the action figure grading phenomenon. Last time I talked in length about the history of grading as it related to a wide spectrum of collectibles. Here we established a baseline for the overall conversation on grading. If you missed that be sure to take a quick read through of how the grading practice originated in other hobbies and ultimately made its way into our hobby.  

With this installment we cover the bigger picture of what grading offers collectors and its place in the hobby today. In short, this is the what, who, why and how of action figure grading.     

The What (i.e. What is Grading?)

Not getting overly complicated, grading in its simplest form is the evaluation of an item's condition and the assignment of a numeric score based on a third party inspector’s (grader’s) assessment. The items are then encapsulated in a container that is sealed to preserve, protect and display the item itself.

At the center of this we have the score (grade) that is assigned to the item. Simply put, whether via a 1-10 or 10-100 scale, it’s about placing the condition of the item on a numeric spectrum for comparative purposes. The score unfortunately draws a disproportional amount of attention from many collectors, as many ultimately oversimplify the grading practice as a whole, making it about this number and the assignment of it. Those shortsighted individuals are missing the bigger picture -- that being that the score itself is not the be-all-end-all reason why this practice has become so popular. We’ll discuss this more later in the article.

Truly the score is about removing subjectivity and biases. Some of you have been collecting long enough to remember the days where you didn’t get pictures of items before you bought them. For those in that group, I bet you are more than likely to have at least one or two stories about receiving an item and feeling like it differed greatly from how it was described. With those that have been collecting over the last twenty years, similar issues come up on eBay and other sites. Poor pictures, lack of descriptions and just generally lackluster information on an item lead to a gap between perception and reality.

Even the usage of collector-made scales like the C-Scale, which is used to help clarify condition and value, has its own flaws on this front, mainly because one person’s evaluation could be based on completely different conditional attributes than another. There are other factors that come in as well, such as experience and literal objective biases. But at the end of the day the biggest flaw in the scale comes from its universal subjectivity and lack of specificity in how a score is being assigned.       

Given its scoring system, grading has become increasingly popular in the hobby, especially on platforms like eBay. Some customer types in this venue include those with a “burn” effect -- collectors who have had issues with condition of items from online auctions and websites. This effect along with the general mistrust of others that people seem to have online has played very well for the practice as the subjectivity is lessened through the third party representation.  

The standardization of evaluations has become one the most prevalent benefits when it comes to the practice of grading. Most companies carry examples on hand of the same items that you are getting graded, thus they have a basis for comparison from mint down to poor condition. This is important in many ways to establish what a figure should look like in pristine condition, especially given the drastic differences you see in color variance and depth within certain toy lines. At the core this has reduced the “he said – she said” situation that we run into.

The Who of Grading

Another aspect of grading is the graders themselves. Who are these people, where do they come from, and what makes them an expert in toys? These are some of the most common questions that are brought up with it comes to another factor around the great grading phenomenon: the WHO. No, not the British rock band from the 60s, but more who are the people that are grading these items.  

Some of the backgrounds of these graders include artists, critics, auction house evaluators, architects, and other job fields where aesthetics and preservation are critical. The long and short is that these companies employ individuals who are creative and detail-orientated -- the two factors that I think are most important when casing items. Whether it’s Leigh and Ken at CAS or Chad and his team at AFA, each brings a unique perspective to their evaluation and casing style.

We'll dive more into the Who with our next article as we take a deeper look at each company, but I wanted to mention the people behind the scenes here, as they are a critical component of what makes grading a popular practice today. 

Why would a collector be inclined to do this? 

So why would someone grade their collectibles? This must be the most common question among those who are new to the practice of grading, and ultimately, it’s probably the most important among established and new collectors. The elusive why.

There is no universal response to this question as ultimately there are several reasons why. Depending on the audience, this is asked with resilience or sometimes tongue-in-cheek, as many collectors already have preconceived notions about the practice.

To quote the AFA website, “Authentication, Preservation, and Evaluation” are the main reasons people grade their collectibles. 

We’ve touched on evaluation already so let’s look at the other individual components:

Authentication: In simple terms authentication is ensuring it’s an original, legitimate item and not a fake or reproduction, and whether it's altered in some way. When it comes to grading, authentication can be a bit of a misnomer (explaining ink touch-ups, reseals), as certain items are not truly authenticated but rather they’re reviewed to ensure lack of tampering and compared with known examples. This is most common with production items, i.e. what made it to store shelves.  

Additional authentication may take place for pre-production or more commonly faked items like double-telescoping lightsaber figures and vinyl cape Jawas. At AFA it’s called the Grading and Authentication service and is paired with a review by Collectible Investment Brokerage (CIB) -- one of the foremost authenticators in the hobby.  

When it comes to pre-production items, this service involves additional steps through experts in the field to verify the origins, purpose and variation from the production counterparts. Sometimes this is obvious with different molds or paint jobs, but it involves more detail review using advanced tools to ensure that you’re production items weren’t stripped, sanded or altered to make them appear different in a way that could be construed as pre-production. This is typical and an additional service where in turn collectors are presented with a COA (Certificate of Authenticity) with additional details on the item.

As important as authentication is to grading, it’s not the driving force behind why most collectors grade their collections. That title goes to Preservation.

Preservation: Whether it’s protecting the item from natural elements or protecting it from your kids or pets, encapsulation (casing) of items always ranks up there as a top reason as to why grading has become so popular over the years. Encasing items in acrylic doesn’t make them bullet proof, but it could be the next best thing besides locking items in a bank vault. In similar fashion to how a museum may protect something that’s precious or valuable, acrylic encasement gives the item an added level of protection and improves the aesthetic of many items. This can be seen across almost any vintage item, but is extremely important for items containing cardboard, weak plastic bubbles, and tape or glue-sealed items. Different methods have been employed by multiple companies to address these issues and help items stay in their original unaltered condition for as long as possible.  

There have been a few innovations over the years to really help with some of the more common problems via case design. The most commonly seen of these innovations would be the bubble protector. These four-sided walled structures were introduced for lines that have significant issues with the plastic figure bubbles remaining adhered to the packaging. These bubble protectors keep the bubble and card more securely held together to help stave off separation as these pieces age. The structure of cases has morphed as well. Simple changes such as using dowels vs. square inner bracing or the advent of using shoulder pads and handcuff style inner bracing have lead to the cases themselves doing a better job protecting the items over the years. 

With advancements in the casing of mailers and multi-packs along with the aesthetic progression that we’ve seen with CAS and AFA on the loose action figure front, grading has conversely brought about new possibilities from a display perspective into multiple segments of the hobby. In the case of loose action figures, grading has really invigorated a segment of collecting that was being overlooked by many “higher end” collectors and hobbyists.

Not only have case styles evolved to address the aforementioned issues, the materials used in these cases has evolved over the years as well. Museum or archival quality acrylic has helped maintain the lifetime of these items by offering additional solutions for light sensitive items. This is mainly seen in additional UV protection that different types of acrylic can offer. UV light, which can be a major concern for people displaying their collection, is thus partially or fully blocked through unique blends of acrylic and the utilization of UV resistant film. This helps the items maintain the depth of color and also helps in protecting some plastics from turning yellow due to UV exposure.

Much like case designs, the scoring of a piece has taken on changes over the years to accommodate growing segments in the hobby. Moving from single to three tiered scoring along with the addition of Y grades to designate yellowing plastic were good moves and helped with the accuracy of scoring. In this situation I’m referring to more sweeping changes that impacted the scope of what could be graded, specifically the Ps ad Qs.

The Q-Grading Scale was introduced by AFA in the early 2010s and expanded upon a major segment that grading companies had stayed away from historically: new in box toys that were no longer sealed. The Q in Q-Grading stands for Qualified. It was a simple augmentation on the current grading scale, allowing collectors to quickly identify that the item has been open by adding the letter Q to the grade and also changing the background of the label from red, which is seen on sealed items, to blue. Items do need to be new and unused in order to qualify for this scale. As such, it wasn’t an open invitation for all MIB items to come in. Instead this was about helping a conditional fringe in the hobby, as double taped, questionable taping, and items that were new but not sealed now qualified for grading. It was a big win for the hobby, as these items should be documented and preserved in a similar light to their sealed counterparts.

CAS has taken this even a step further in their fight to maintain the integrity of items that have been severely damaged from a preservation perspective. The P-Scale (Preservation Scale) is used on cut card figures to ensure they aren’t removed from their bubbles and preserved. Given the lack of new inventory to hit the market in the past 20+ years, this has become a more protected segment for collectors over time, and as such the service meets a growing need for preservation. New concepts like the P-Scale are important as grading needs to evolve like the hobby. Where there is new demand, we need new concepts. 

Remember when I told you not to get stuck on the numbers? It wasn’t that far back and there’s a reason. Many are unaware still to this day that there really are two main services offered by these companies when it comes to sealing items in acrylic: grading and encapsulation. These two activities are not one in the same. The latter is a less expensive way to preserve the items and gain the aesthetic and preservation elements that are associated with grading. Thus if you truly don’t care about the number you can save yourself some money and maybe a little stress by going this route vs. traditional grading. 

How (How’s it done)?

Now that you’re excited about this (or extremely annoyed) and armed with the background, just how in the heck does this work? Well, the “how” varies for each company to some extent, but we’ll cover the broad strokes and try to address a few of the specifics of each company.  

First the specifics. Each company has their own process for submitting items to be graded and I’ve linked to the different processes below for reference:

Given both the length of this article and the particulars of each company, I won’t drone on about this in detail, as both companies do a great job summarizing what you need to do and where you need to send your items.

In short, the broad strokes of the process involved the following steps:

  • Paperwork – either online or handwritten.
  • Packing – protecting the items so they make it there unscathed.
  • Payment – show us your money!
  • Grading – the evaluation and casing.
  • Return Shipments – getting your items back.

Turnaround times and prices vary by company, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the specifics of each organization via their website.

Summarizing a few tips from a seasoned collector:

  1. Ensure you’re familiar with the price structure, specifically bulk or member discounts.
  2. Pack your items appropriately. The websites will make mention and give suggestions, but take extra care as there’s nothing worse than something happening on the way to the graders.
  3. Be familiar with turnaround times prior to submitting. Make sure you’re okay with not seeing your items for 3-4 months in a lot of cases. Take things like pending trades and your own sanity into account.                                                                 
If you don’t have much background on the companies or want more details on them, sit tight as our third installment in this digital trilogy will be released in the coming months which will cover the companies, their backgrounds, the evolution of their services, and which services they offer.

Concluding this article, let’s summarize:

  • There are many reasons for grading beyond the numerical value itself.
  • It’s a widely accepted practice.
  • Opinions are opinions, make up your own mind and don’t let any tell you any different.  
  • It is a good thing for the hobby. Times change and sometimes people can’t accept that.

Be sure to stop back to the Star Wars Collectors Archive for more articles, our podcast and other new features to help stave away the social distancing period.

Until then... Wampa, Wampa!

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