The American Magazine September 1922

On Condition: Do you just want it or do you want it pretty?

Condition, condition, condition, of course, the three most important facets of any collectible, but is it really? Well, in the sense of just how collectible an item is, sure it is, but as to what matters most to collectors I find it’s not necessarily so. I’ll qualify that statement further; to the experienced collector, one who’s amassed articles in any particular niche for any amount of time it is paramount. But frankly I’ve concerned myself much of late with the burgeoning collector and the starter collection.

Here’s the thing about that card with a crease or magazine with torn cover–it’s a lot more available than the pristine vintage item and so, obviously, it’s much cheaper. As a dealer it’s put me in an awkward position. You see the junk turns over much quicker than the prizes. I’ve tried very hard to sell beautiful rare vintage pieces in the $200 range, often settling for $100-$125 after enough time passes, but at the same time that same item, say it’s a magazine with a single page cut out of the middle, sells quite easily for $40-$50, which quite honestly is likely more than it would be worth. I don’t mention this as an isolated incident, it’s more of a chronic pattern.

The American Magazine September 1922
Despite an early article by F. Scott Fitzgerald and another piece inside by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle this piece obviously comes with some Scotch Tape issues. Still it sat for only a couple of weeks and sold for my full marked price of $69 and change.

The most difficult spot this put me in is on the buying side of my business. I routinely pass on items offered at very fair rates just because I know I can’t afford to tie myself up in a handful of beautiful items for a long period of time when I can use the same money to leave with a satchel of similar but, call them broken, items that will move like wild fire at the right prices.

But I don’t frown upon the buyers of these imperfect collectibles, no, firstly I appreciate them because they help me make my living, and so, yes, there is an admitted financial stake involved, but more so what I love most about my low to mid-range grade collectors is that I’m very often catching them just as their passion has sparked.

There is plenty of time later to upgrade and hunt perfection, but I’m catching them coming in the front door. They are not buying to build a poorly conceived investment portfolio which usually produces either a loss or another new dealer at the end of the rainbow, but they are buying either from their heads or their hearts, an interest or a passion.

Please don’t get me wrong–I’m not a junk dealer, and sometimes items that squeeze through the front door will leave out the back tied inside a Hefty bag, but I am not above listing the occasional magazine with a coffee ring on the cover; scotch tape at the binding; an otherwise pristine tobacco card with a dim impression at each of the four corners from a previous mounting; or even a magazine stamped “library edition” if it is otherwise in strong shape. I do try to draw the line at anything with water damage, ink scribbles, clipped corners or other malicious defacements, though if specific items are rare or otherwise desirable I may relent.

The key in upholding my reputation is total disclosure. This is why every single card, from the $1 common to the $100 key to the set are subjected to the same scrutiny under high light come grading time. It’s why I make an effort to turn every single page of a magazine passing through here and tell you so along with what I’ve seen in any online listing. A picture may be worth a thousand words but when it comes to buying and selling online the devil is in the details and the most valuable of those details are text-based.

With my baseball card background I grade everything passing through here along a similar system to the traditional American card grading system (P,F,G,VG,EX,EX-MT,MT) and attribute a corresponding numerical grade (1-10) alongside the more traditional nomenclature. I do the same for magazines because I feel it offers more detail than the usual bookseller’s terms.

Here’s a look at my guide, whether you agree with it or not I like to think it offers a brutally honest point of reference for anyone otherwise not understanding my grade (I used to include this in each of my eBay listings, but yanked the reference about a year ago for fear they’d shut down my listings because of the outside link).

On the other end of the spectrum I am especially harsh. I don’t believe I’ve ever used the term MINT or 10/10 in any listing I’ve posted online these past ten years. On the flip side I’ve bought my share of “Mint” items, but I’ve done so expecting EX (5/10) and being ecstatic when I actually receive an EX-MT (7/10) item. I’ve used NM-MT (9/10) though rarely and reserved for items which look so good you’d think I’d printed them myself (no, I don’t do that, it’s all vintage). Typically a high grade item in my stock is going to mark out EX+ (6/10) to EX-MT (7/10) and it really thrills me to see somebody leave feedback remarking on the fantastic condition of such items.

1948 Dinkie Grips Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr
This card is gorgeous grading NM and rare and I must say priced pretty fair considered those two factors. Oh yeah, there's that Clark Gable guy too, he's pretty famous. It's been sitting without an offer for close to a year now. Go figure.

Harsh grading has been one of the keys to my online success. Part of me knows I could bump items a point or even two up my scale, raise prices to reflect such and still satisfy 90% of my customers, but I’m quite honestly making what I make and pleasing nearly a universal audience (after all, there are always a few cranks).

I grade a movie card issued during the Silent Era under the same conditions and curve as baseball card from the Steroids Era; I grade a Civil War era issue of Harper’s the same as I do a Reagan era issue of Time. I try to avoid terms like really nice for its’ age, though I’m sure I’ve succumbed to this phraseology on occasion when I’ve been overwhelmed by something myself. Still, that same era carries a grade like any other.

In the case of condition rarity falls under the same spectrum as age. Just because the item is super rare any crease through the cardboard and we’re talking about a G-VG piece at best. You can price it rare, but please, grade it standard.

What do you say?

  • Is condition the top factor you consider when adding a piece to your collection and if so are you a seasoned collector?
  • Are you a newbie who just wants the item the first time you see it, scotch tape or no?

Though perhaps of greater interest from my perspective:

  • Are you a new collector who won’t settle for less than the best?
  • An experienced collector who picks their spots knowing that poorer condition is sometimes a trade-off for rarity and knowing when that applies?

I’d be interested to hear because after a lifetime of hearing the mantra condition is king practical experience has caused considerable doubts.

Published by

Cliff Aliperti

I've been involved with collecting and collectibles pretty much as long as I can remember beginning as a tyke with baseball cards and somehow managing to collect a little of this and a little of that from many other hobbies over the year. I began assisting my Uncle at baseball card shows and live auctions in the mid-1980's (fun times!) and it wasn't very long before I started dealing a little myself from inside his space. About 1990 I became a full-time baseball card dealer for about three years, during which time I also really fell in love with classic movies. There was a four-year gap afterwards for college and then another four years that I dressed up nice and rode the LIRR to Manhattan each morning to sell advertising, but it was that real job which served as my introductory course with a computer and its down hours which led to my first use of eBay in 2000. By 2004 eBay was paying better than Manhattan so I went full-time and have been ever since. The baseball card market was a little tight early on so pretty much on a whim I bought some silent era movie photos which reawakened the passion for me. I currently specialize in Movie Cards and Collectibles from the Silent Era through the Golden Age of the movies as well as general Magazine Back Issues from the 19th Century through to about the 1980's. All of my currently available stock can be found in my eBay Store. I also operate several informational websites, the first of which has been home to my archives of vintage movie cards and collectibles since 2002. I also run the magawiki, a site comprised of the contents lists of vintage magazine back issues, a fan site dedicated to the 1930's and 40's actor Warren William, who's also the subject of my personal collection, and an e-commerce site at Besides all of that, and the selling, I'm usually in several other places online, the most current of which can usually be found on my Google Profile.

7 thoughts on “On Condition: Do you just want it or do you want it pretty?”

  1. My entire house is filled with inherited items, some in good shape, but most have seen better days but they are a collection of family history and at the moment I would not trade them for the world. However some day I may like to make some of them a little prettier, but then according to the antique world, they loose their value. So you just can’t win.


  2. Awesome article, Cliff!

    I’m an experienced collector — but I’m also a bottom feeder in the collecting world. It’s borne of necessity, sure; but (rationalization or not), I also view myself as saving what was actually used and enjoyed (as well as documenting & preserving for research).

    Quite often, especially when it comes to ephemera like vintage magazines, you don’t know what’s really inside it and the low price (online or in person) will seduce me into buying it so that I can spend the time to really investigate it at home. The lower price means that I am not only less likely to be disappointed, but that I can grab more items to delight in.

    Naturally I’d prefer as close to pristine as I can get (and missing pages or pages which have been clipped can be devastating!), but all things considered, part of the charm of any antique or vintage item is the fact that there are imperfections.

    To those, like Karen, who worry about tomorrow’s value over today’s enjoyment, I say careful use and enjoyment only adds to the value. It’s not only your memories of using and enjoying something, but the memories your family has of using it — or your use of it. It’s what keeps things in the family. And that’s worth more to me than what my kids might one day get for it.

    But I’m obviously dedicated to the worth and value of objects and see past the monetary and popularity — so I’m clearly biased. 😉

  3. Like Deanna I am a bottom feeder. I do not buy as an investment, it has been my experience that investment quality in collectibles is very often a depreciating asset. 🙁

    I buy because I want something and I like it. That said I will generally pass on things which are chipped or cracked, China is my passion, well one of them, as I like to be able to use them.

    Thanks for sharing your grading guide. I have a number of Victorian trade cards bought in job lots for the one or two I wanted and this will help me describe them accurately for sale.

  4. Cliff, great stuff.
    Everytime I walk into one of your articles, I find the day has gone by. I end up reading each and every line, once or twice at least.

    In this case… morning is breaking, and I don’t have much time, so…..

    I’ll just note that we’ve now linked YOUR grading page on the bottom of our ephemera and books page on our site. Should anyone ask me about a “grade” for something we sell, I will refer to your grading page and shoot them back what I believe is a very truthful and conservative grade. AND I can point them right to a page that explains what it means.

    As the youngsters would say, Yo da man !@!@.

    truly, thanks for the read and the grading info, loved it.

  5. Did you catch American Pickers tonight? They discussed this very issue — specifically regarding a rusted advertising sign. 🙂

  6. Deanna – No, have yet to see that one, but glad to hear I’m topical!

    Vince – I’m flattered, and thanks for the additional link-up!

    Henrietta – Thanks, hope the Guide helps you out! The trading card section is more standard than the other columns, but it’s still got a touch of “me” thrown into it as well 🙂

    Karen – Not my area (talk to Vince!) but if you know what you’re doing and you’re more interested in living in your antiques than profiting off them I say do whatever pleases you. I know what you mean though, it’d be nice to do it in a way that preserves value (um, Vince?).

    Thanks all for reading!

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