A hot topic in all the Facebook comic-collecting groups has been the closing gap between raw and graded comic prices –especially for Silver and Bronze Age keys. This begs the question: Are graded comics really worth more?
What is ‘value,’ anyway?
There is a lot of nuance involved in assessing the worth of a collectible. This is because the value is based not on the sum of its parts but something intrinsic that goes well beyond supply and demand.
The material value of a comic book (the total value of each element of its construction) is low. So, what assigns value to these stapled-together pieces of paper? It’s the text and images printed upon them. And since the inks that form those words and pictures are also relatively valueless, we must attribute almost all of the value to mere concepts. With further deconstruction, we can consider the quality of the prose, appreciate the dynamics of the narrative, and recognize the aesthetic pleasure of great composition and color.
But in the most basic sense, the things that make comic books valuable are arbitrary compared to the contributing factors normally considered in determining the value of most other tangible assets.
Except, of course, that there is nothing arbitrary about why collectors want certain comics.
The reason that Hulk #180 is worth $46,000 in a hermetically-sealed, plastic slab with a 9.8 in the upper left corner while a Hulk #179 (a technically older book from the same creative team) in the same condition is worth $200 is because of the introduction of a new character in the more recent of the two. Hulk #181 is even more valuable because that character appears not just on a single page but on the cover and throughout the issue. Take any of these books out of those plastic slabs and that comic drops by as much as 90% in value.
The Sizzle Not the Steak
If you are a comic book reader, the mere idea of slabbing a book may be anathema to you. For one thing, the element of the story that provides the bulk of value is frequently not on the cover (and basically never on the back cover). When you slab a baseball card, you preserve the value and visibility of everything that contributes to the price. But when you slab a comic book you sacrifice a hefty portion of enjoyment in favor of a memory or even a rumor of its contents.
Investors aren’t bothered by this, because the Fair Market Value is instantly recognizable. Consensus (as decided by an impartial expert) provides a metric for that value via grading. While still somewhat arbitrary, there is a standard in professional grading that allows near-instant monetization. Becoming an expert at grading takes a lot of time and investors happily pay the premium for an instant qualification of grade because it allows them to focus on speculation and speeds up the return on their investment. If you’ve ever bought a comic on eBay, you have likely had a dispute about the condition advertised in that listing.
A slab eliminates that.
These days you can order custom labels to boost the aesthetic presentation of your graded comic. But that’s not to say that a sealed plastic slab (or the extra paper between it and the comic book) makes it more valuable; they are an avatar of value, not the value, itself. The plastic makes a comic book more sellable, not more valuable. The undeniable exceptions are for Signature Series and Pedigree copies for which the color-coded labels provide authentication.
So Why the Mark-up?
In truth, the mark-up on a slabbed, blue-label book should not be much. Logistically, the added value should be only a convenience tax added to the actual cost of grading. At current rates, a modern (1975 – Present) comic with an un-slabbed value of $400 max costs $24 to be graded plus the cost of shipping to and from CGC. It’s a little less if you choose CBCS or some other competitor. If you want it faster you can spend a lot more money –$130 or 3% of FMV or both.
It’s probably not a wise investment to pay the Express premium on a $400 comic book, so if you are worried about a price drop it may be more profitable to sell it raw. In most cases, a comic will have increased dramatically (not diminished) in value over the course of time it takes to get graded, but big-dollar collectibles can only become liquid assets if you can sell them. If time is not of the essence, economy service warrants an average mark-up of about $65.
So how does a 9.8 slab of a raw comic with an FMV of $12 get to be $500 or more? Because at some point, the value of eliminating any dispute over perceived condition got very valuable. And that, of course, works both ways.
For major keys, it is not uncommon to see raw copies advertised at graded prices. This is a by-product of the extended, peak-pricing market. Scarcity and the long turnaround time for grading has pushed raw prices up again. In a way, the raw copy is way cooler if there is consensus about the condition; if handled with care it can even be paged-through.
The Advantage of Wishful Thinking
That’s why the ungraded Mile High Collection Action Comics #1 is perceived as having a value above $10 million even though it is ungraded and therefore not slabbed. The highest grade ever sold was a 9.0 which went for $3.2 million a whopping 8 years ago. This past January a 6.0 sold for almost that much. The Mile High copy is perceived as being a 9.4, so realistically it could be worth as much as $25 million because it has no peer.
This crystalizes how scarcity can make a raw comic way more valuable than a graded comic. Once graded there is no dispute, but an ungraded comic gives a seller the advantage of wishful thinking. Buyers have used the potential for a comic to be downgraded as a means to pay less for years, but if you have a reasonably high-grade, raw copy of scarce Golden Age grails like New Adventure Comics #26 or Detective Comics #1, there is no reason why you can’t price it as high or even higher than than the most recently sold, graded copy. And to be honest, there is nothing preventing you from doing the same with a Silver or Bronze Age Key. The market will decide. Someone will either pay graded price or they won’t.
Plastic slabs are a form of altruism in actual practice. Their perceived value-add is an example of how aspiration can become consensus. Any collector with a trained eye and the right collection can extract just as much profit from a raw comic (and its inherent potential) without any requirement of grading.
This being the internet and all, I’m sure you’ve all got opinions about this, so please comment below.
Keep it civil and be sure to like this post if you do!