Is Buying The Best Always The Best Advice?

March 17, 2023

“Buy the best you can afford!” This was one of the first pieces of advice given to me when I set out to learn the antiques and collectibles trade at the tender age of 12. Today, I strongly caution new collectors from taking this same advice. Believe it or not, this is actually bad advice when applied to certain collecting categories, thanks in part to the rise of third-party grading. Back when I was 12, third-party grading was a newfound concept that only applied to coins (yes, I am that old). Today, in the year 2023, everything from coins to sports cards to comic books, toys, video games, and even VHS movies are all being encased in plastic and given a numerical grade. Third-party grading has dominated the collectibles scene for quite some time, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. As such, some pieces of advice do not age all that well depending on what one chooses to collect and why.
At present time, third-party graded collectors clamor to own their collectibles in the highest grade possible. They can even register them in online public collecting forums and receive prestige among other collectors for owning specific high-grade examples. The problem is, when dealing in established and mature collecting categories, most of the highest graded items sell for a substantial premium. Just going one or two grades higher on an arbitrary grading scale can in certain instances mean the difference of tens of thousands of dollars in value, or in certain high-profile cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is why condition is such a major determining factor of value. If one is to own an Action Comics number one, a Mickey Mantle rookie card, or a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, I can assure you, if authentic, you have something of value. However, that value cannot be quantified without assessing the item’s condition. This is where third-party grading comes in.
Since coins were the very first collectible to ever be both graded and encapsulated and also accepted by the coin collecting public, we can learn an awful lot as to how these markets work just by studying the fundamentals of coin collecting and apply some of these core concepts to other collecting markets. One of the best collecting and investing strategies I know came out of the coin collecting market. This concept is called the optimal collecting grade. The core concept of understanding the optimal collecting grade is discussed in the book “The Coin Collector’s Survival Manual” by Scott A. Travers. I have long argued that the best course of action for would-be collectors who wish to attempt to invest in the antiques and collectibles trade is to learn about other collecting markets and not just the ones the collector is passionate about. The optimal collecting grade is one such concept that can help someone save large sums of money, especially when operating in markets as speculative as collectibles.
So what exactly is the optimal collecting grade theory, and how can an advanced collector use this to his or her advantage? Quite simply, the optimal collecting grade is defined as the grade at which a third-party graded collectible can be purchased that is a steep discount from a collectible that is one grade above it. For instance, let’s assume in this example that a collector is looking to buy a third-party graded high grade comic book. It does not matter what the comic book in question is. Now let’s assume that this graded comic book in 9.2 condition goes for an average price of $5,000, but the next grade up, which is a 9.4, goes for $7,000, and the next grade after that, a 9.6, goes for $15,000. The optimal collecting grade in this simplified scenario would be the 9.4 condition copy that sells for $7,000. Buying the 9.2 at $5,000 could result in some buyer’s remorse for that particular book, especially if one can get a better condition item for a fraction of the money already paid. On the flipside of the equation, paying more than twice the asking price of a 9.4 copy to simply get a 9.6 copy is unwise in this scenario. Therefore, a 9.4 graded copy is all the collector should aspire to own, whether buying for investment or just enjoyment. This is probably one of the most advanced collecting strategies a collector can use to optimize their collection’s value, but it does have its limits. Case in point, for more speculative collectibles like graded video games, toys, and even certain trading cards, the market does not have enough good long-term pricing data to be able to correctly assess values in each grade. That said, for markets like certain graded sports cards, comic books, coins, and currency, there are a lot of available tools to help assess the optimal collecting grade.
Ironically, one question I am routinely asked when I teach this core concept is, “If everyone used the optional collecting grade theory to purchase graded collectibles, wouldn’t that cause the prices for these collectibles that meet the definition of the optimal collecting grade to rise?” My answer is always the same, “I have been teaching this core concept to anyone that will listen since 2010. I assure you, the average collector does not buy out of logic, they buy out of emotion.” Interestingly enough, that is why I caution a lot of collectors from trying to invest in these markets. Most people buy collectibles out of emotion, but the best investments should be bought out of logic. I think a lot of collectors could learn about these markets just by offering to help a dealer out and see how they assess their chosen markets. It might just open the collector’s eyes as to the fundamental differences between a collector and one who buys to resell. I can assure you that the optimal collecting grade theory is a concept that almost every coin dealer I know has taught me, and it has paid me handsome dividends in other collecting markets like comic books and sports cards. To anyone paying multiples to acquire some of these third-party graded collectibles in today’s market, depending on what you are buying, you may be making a big mistake. To that I say, understand the concept of the optimal collecting grade.

Shawn Surmick has been an avid collector since the age of 12. He currently resides in his hometown of Boyertown, Pa., and is a passionate collector of antiques and collectibles. His articles focus on various topics affecting the marketplace.


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