Slabbing - Revisited! 
Posted 03/14/01

I recently ran a feature article on the practice of grading and slabbing action figures.  The article focused on the first company involved, the Action Figure Authority, and my opinion on the effects this could have on the hobby of toy collecting.

After the article ran, I talked with Charles Ware, President of the AFA. He had read my  article, and wanted to discuss his views on his company, the market and the future. I thought that would be a wonderful opportunity to hear both sides of the story.

I didn't record our conversation - sorry, but it's been years since I had a decent tape recorder - so I'm not going to try to quote him exactly. We talked about a series of subjects, and here are my impressions of his answers and his thoughts.

Up front I'd like to say that my conversation with Mr. Ware was pleasant and informative. He seems like an extremely nice person, and I believe that he certainly has no ill intentions toward either the action figure market or the collectors out there. He believes his service has value and importance within the current marketplace.

First, I wondered about whether the AFA was affiliated with the other well known grading 
services for comics and cards, like the Certified Collectibles Group or the Comics Guarantee.
As it turns out, they are not, and the AFA is currently a completely independent group. When I asked about other possible affiliations, such as the one that CGC has with Wizard, Charles was somewhat evasive, saying that while nothing was finalized, they had talked with several folks. Time will tell.

I was extremely curious as to the actual process that the figures go through. Here is how it was explained to me...

The collector sends the figure(s) to a post office box here in Michigan, in the small town of Hudsonville just outside Grand Rapids. Mr. Ware is also a police officer, and he and another officer transport the figures securely from the p.o. box to the company.

Once at the company, the figures are unpacked and verified against the original submission form. This insures that what you sent is what they had listed. The figure is then listed in their database for continued tracking.

The figure is initially checked for authenticity. The AFA is seeing a lot of tampering and altering with the Star Wars figures in particular. Microscopes are used to weed out resealing, card restoration with markers and pens, and other types tampering. Early on, they were refusing 15-20% of the Star Wars figures they were receiving at this point in the process!  They do not grade figures that have been altered or tampered with.

Once the authenticity and originality of the figure have been guaranteed, the figure and card are graded against a point system. There are 30-35 types of damage that each figure is reviewed for, using various UV lights. The figure, accessories, card back and bubble are all inspected, and points are deducted for specific and consistent types of damage.

The grade that is determined through this process is then verified by a second person. This two-person requirement is intended to provide you with a greater feeling of security, since grading can still be a subjective art.

The process is completed by slabbing the carded figure in their special cases and applying the identifying stickers and tags. The cases are designed to allow for slight variations in card size, which was particularly common in vintage toys.

Mr. Ware and I talked a little about how he felt this might effect the market, and whether that was good or bad. I asked him about the effects of 'market grading', where something has a better grade because the market wants it to. For example, a 1980 Star Wars figure might be given a break because of it's age, and receive a higher grade than say a 1998 Star Wars figure.

Mr. Ware assured me that his company would not participate in any thing like this. He has a consistent set of requirements for each grade, and the age of the figure or packaging has no bearing whatsoever. That's good news, although I suspect he will get quite a bit of push back from dealers who will feel he's grading too hard.

He also stated that there are no plans for grades with 'caveats', such as the case with the CGC. There will be no Near Mint 85, except for cracked bubble type of rankings, which is  something that has greatly disturbed comic collectors in their market. I consider that more good news.

Of course, in assigned grades such as these, people are interested in the credentials of the people doing the assessments. Mr. Ware has 17 years of experience collecting comics, cards and figures. Each person who does grading has been specifically trained in the scale and point system, and AFA buys figures that have been tampered with or altered on purpose to learn and educate themselves further in that area.

Mr. Ware and I discussed the action figure market for awhile, and it's very clear that he feels his service will be a benefit. He summed up his reasons behind some of the excessive prices with various observations. First, people always tend to pay an inflated price for something 'new'. Since grading/slabbing is so new to the market, they are overreacting to it out of the gate. Also, it's something that can set a figure apart from others - a mint figure that has been graded is therefore slightly different from a mint figure that has not.  This is similar to a slight variation or change in the figure itself, and makes that particular figure more desirable to some people. He believes that grading has helped the baseball card market quite a bit, and has brought the investors back in. I'm sure some might argue with him on this point, but the presence of investors is a good sign in his opinion. He did also state that for this to work properly, AFA has to remain consistent and professional. If they allow their accuracy to come into question, they will be doing the market a disservice.

As I said earlier, the talk was amiable and interesting. Mr. Ware is clearly a bright man, who has experience in the collectibles markets. I believe he is genuinely sincere in his belief that his service will help collectors rather than harm them, and that once the market settles the positive effects of grading and slabbing will be seen. While I don't agree with him on all points, there was one major point that we could both clearly come to terms on - that the buyers of these figures are largely responsible for the ridiculous prices being paid.

If action figure collectors don't use common sense when buying these graded figures, and start paying greatly inflated prices for this insurance of grade, then they will be the real ones at fault when the market is damaged. You cannot save someone from themselves - only they can do that. If a collector pays $500 for a $100 figure in a plastic case, then he'll end up with a $400 plastic case, and should have realized that from the start.

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