Making The Grade – Part 2

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Crystal clear

This is exactly where we left things last week on Part 1. The factory sealed vintage Transformers Generation 1 Aerialbot Fireflight had been photo-analysed, admired, had a potential grading result predicted by a number of experienced collectors and then promptly sent off to the Action Figure Authority (AFA) for grading as part of an experiment. Fireflight has since returned, cased and graded, and this week I’ll be taking you through the minutiae of the grading process and analysing the result to the best of my ability.

Having already given my stance on grading and examined the figure itself, this week I’ll begin by looking at how the process is started, by registering interest in a grading via the AFA’s website, www.toygrader.com. There will be screenshots of the menus, options, costs and procedure, as well as any difficulties faced. After that we will look at the returned and graded Fireflight specimen, finally the grade will be shared and we can compare to the predictions. Let’s get busy, then.

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CGA is the parent organisation

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No brainer for this project, really

First of all I had to select the type of membership I wanted, ‘Free User’ was clearly the way to go unless I was going to be a serial grader, sending in an entire collection for grading. I can see how the other options would benefit experienced and regular graders. I’m actually glad – in light of the later costs – that there was a free option at all.

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Creating a submission

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Wouldn’t have wanted to navigate this without advice

The first shot above shows what I consider to be the main home page for someone logging in (of course you must register, hence the membership type selection) to either continue an online submission, common for multiple figures being sent at once, or begin a new submission as I was doing. Here’s a quote from the owner of the Fireflight:

“You can read on the site about the different tiers things are graded at. Basically tiers means return time. More you pay, faster you get it. Not a wonderful feature in my opinion but going the ‘archival’ tier basically allows you to jump the line and get your item back fast. You’ll also see the other choices they have, such as case style, whether or not to get UV (I always get the UV protection especially on white figures) and so on”.

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AFA will handle shipping, but you do get a choice.

Trying to sort out shipping/return details was a little annoying. There was no option for me to remove the State drop-down selection, so I had to go for a US state for my UK address, redundant as that would be. Therefore, Fireflight would be returning to London, Alabama. That irritating little niggle would be present on all subsequent paperwork. As for costs, I sent the Fireflight tracked with Royal Mail to the AFA, and it came to around £23 GBP.

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Tampering, eh?

While most of the submission form details were straightforward such as year, company, series etc, figure value and the particulars of the casing procedure may be cause for hesitation. I went for the Classic Style case with the smaller offset grading sticker as I’d never seen Transformers graded with the larger immediately visible sticker. Or, if I had, I wasn’t aware.  The Archival case using the standard grading scale was used on the owner’s advice for a faster turnaround, and the Modern Grading scale didn’t seem relevant (details on the toygrader site of what each scale’s features are). Why $900? Again, I deferred to my contact’s experience of ungraded figures like carded Aerialbots in the matter:

“Here’s that cost estimate as I see it. Ungraded, in DEAD mint condition, I think $1000 is top of the line. If it got a 90 from the AFA, they were selling at double that afterwards. It’s hard to sell based on the promise of a 90, because it’s so hard to get that grade.

If it’s almost perfect, ungraded I’d say $800. If it scores an 85 you’re back to $1k-$1200. This is the smallest window, because an 85 while hard to get is usually the main grade for minty items. That is usually the cut off line for collectors. They want that 85.

If it were to get an 80, you’re looking at about $400-500 max. This is the majority of most graded items, the 80 window”.

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Cost summary so far with no extras

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Extras available to the owner of the specimen to be graded

It’s mad to think that after grading the item could conceivably go for less, pretty much half of what it could have sold for totally ungraded with the promise of a high AFA grade. The moral here is to consult the experienced graders and get some opinions on what a piece could score, if you have any interest in preserving something. But then, that brings up the whole argument of why should one get something graded, simply to sell it for more. In fact, that’s one of the principal complaints that non-grading collectors have with the whole procedure and culture. If you’ve really bought a sealed item for that much and had it graded at an 80, and you have done it for purposes of preservation, confirmation of quality and condition, or display, then potential re-sale should not be the primary concern. We are all interested in making back a lot of what we’ve paid in this hobby should the need arise to sell, but those who put it at the forefront of their buying considerations often come in for some stick online.

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London, Alabama

All of the possible extras one can select to include in the grading package can be seen in the images above, and I admit I considered asking for a detailed grading report in order to further analyse the eventual grade, but decided against it. The endeavour was costing enough as it was, with $90 being added to the total cost thus far. The estimated turnaround time given in red above refers to how long they expect to spend on producing a grade for your product once in hand.

Once the submission is made, the customer is required to print the submission form generated by the AFA, as well as the terms and conditions, sign and date both, include them inside the shipping box then send it off to be graded. Fireflight was sent to the AFA using Royal Mail Airsure (tracked, insured and signed for) on November 11th 2014. On November 21st I received the following from the AFA:

“Thank you for your first submission with us and welcome to AFA! Attached is an unpaid invoice for your submission. Prior to billing your provided method of payment, we would like to discuss the return shipping method for your item. USPS is typically chosen for a small international shipment such as your item; however, due to its value, we suggest using UPS or FedEX although those are a bit more expensive. Listed below are estimated shipping costs for our international shipping carriers.

1. USPS International: $55.35
2. FedEx International: $71.44
3. UPS International: $100.55

*Please note that while we make our best efforts to provide you with actual pricing, the prices listed above are estimates and are subject to change*”.

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Useful and effective, as well as interesting blurb on assessing value

That message about shipping prices implied to me that the Fireflight had been received by the AFA, but it wasn’t until a couple of days after that, the 24th, that I got official confirmation of receipt, even after a message acknowledging my choice of USPS International shipping. That meant another $55 approx on top of the $90 and £23 spent on getting it to them and graded. The item was graded and sent out for shipping back to me on 2nd December, so not too bad a turnaround all things considered. As the image above shows, they do try to avoid customers getting hit with customs duties, and Fireflight sailed through and onto my doorstep without obstruction. Total cost to me, then, was £23  (shipping to AFA) + £45.61 (return shipping…doesn’t quite match up to the $55 estimated, more like $70 but it wasn’t FedEx) + £64.27 (Grading) = £132.88 GBP / $206 USD approx.

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Bagged and tagged

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Pre-bag removal

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Clearly wavy

Once the AFA sent back the Fireflight, that’s when the fun really started. It was received on 10th December 2014, pretty much a month after sending it out. I already knew the grade as I was informed I could get that information via email as soon as the grading had been completed. Unpacking the well-protected item, they had encased Fireflight and wrapped it in some clear plastic.

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Free…sort of

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Safe landings

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There’s no doubt about how nice the item looks inside the case, although it’s not to everyone’s tastes. For a sealed item, I think I would have gone for a case with a sliding bottom to be able to access the specimen now and then. That’s how my Ceji Joustra Diaclone minibots are preserved, either in Star Cases or a AFA-style slide-bottom case. You can see that the waviness of the card is still highly visible inside the casing and I think it may have even caused a little bit of difficulty during the casing process, we’ll come to that later. I realise now that card waviness hasn’t entered into the grading, just as the experienced collectors in Part 1 said it wouldn’t, but I feel it should as most would opt for a totally flat card over a wavy one, especially if the grade were the same.

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Look under the “S” of “Ages”

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See the white speck just above the plastic?

Almost there now, I just wanted to cover something I consider to be of huge importance. When inspecting the graded Fireflight specimen, one of the things I was looking for was if there had been any additional spots of wear added throughout the grading process. The answer was yes, as you can see above. Neither of those white marks, undoubtedly created when the item was being inserted into the plastic case looking at where the plastic holders are positioned respective to the scratches, were there when the item was sent out. Proof from pre-grading:

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No scratch

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No nick

Does it matter? Surely it does, surely you hand over something this pristine in the hope that absolutely no further wear or spots of damage will be added. On something as glossy as this Fireflight, I really didn’t have to get the magnifying glass out to spot these scratches/nicks, I spotted them pretty much straight away. When I was looking at the item in the case I logged the question with myself “Was that there before? Must remember to check”. So I did, and here we are. My belief is that inserting the card into the case, with its plastic internals, is what has created the damage. I wonder if the card’s inherent waviness has contributed to the difficulty in getting it into the package, if any compression and subsequent rubbing has created the damage.

We’ve spoken about the concept, the subject, the process and the pitfalls. Now, finally, the grade.

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Check the subgrades

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Finality?

AFA 85, with subgrades of C85, B90, F90, and overall assessment of Near Mint +. I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was, pleasantly so, because that is what all of the experienced graders predicted. Not all the people who submitted predictions were on the money, but some even got the subgrades spot on.

Malach Ra – “I would say overall strong 85. There’s no way it’s a 75 IMO. There just aren’t enough flaws. The card really isn’t warped, the bubble looks flawless, there are no bends or creases. There are some discoloration/rub marks, but not enough to warrant anything less than 85 card grade. I think it could definitely pull an 85 with subgrades c85, b90, f90. Just my opinion here”.

If AFA 90 is considered perfection these days due to the belief of some that the AFA are being more stringent with what they hand out to figures, this would lead one to believe that the bubble and figure were perfect. I am surprised that with those small white imperfections around the bubble it has scored so highly, whereas the figure being completely untouched deserves a high grade. I suspect the card grade was the most work because it was not as obvious and had the greatest considerations to be made. Those marks on the back of the card we saw last week would have affected it significantly. Would it score the same now with the added small scratches?

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The owner of the Fireflight was pleased with the outcome, and it’s what he expected due to his many grading adventures. He was very interested to know how I felt about the experience, and this was difficult for me to articulate due to the fact that it wasn’t my own figure being graded, it wasn’t my decision to grade it and none of the subsequent consequences of the grade would be an advantage/disadvantage to me. Arguably, that places me in the best position possible to evaluate the procedure.

Once I got over the antiquity of the web interface (and the irritation of not being able to submit my correct address format), I found the time taken to submit, send and receive the item to be acceptable, although in my opinion the cost was too high as an international collector outside of the US. You could argue that once you get into the MISB/MOSC G1 price bracket, this is small fry, but to me it was a noticeable dent, even if the owner of the Fireflight covered it for the purposes of this project. I was pleasantly surprised by the grade, it seemed to be what the experts predicted but I was disappointed to see further damage added, and were this to have been a treasured piece from my own collection, it would have upset me massively. Communication and packing of the item was excellent from CGA/AFA all the way through, and the case is as nice as you’d want, but for what you pay the professionals to do this, these are expected norms, not bonuses.

Would I use their services personally in the future? Possibly, if I came across something special enough historically that was factory sealed and deserved to be encased, seeing as how they are still the standard in the business with little competition.  Whether I would do it for purposes of authentication and actual grade-giving, I think I prefer to handle those assessments myself, and I’d refer to the expertise we have in the Transformers community before the AFA. Somehow, though, I don’t think my interaction with the AFA is done forever.

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The End?

All the best
Maz

About Maz

Diaclone and TF collector & writer from the UK. I also write for & own TF-1.com and TFSquareone.

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