The Art Of Grading Trains

How many times has someone told you that everyone grades differently, so don't worry about it? I hear that all the time, and although I do believe everyone does grade differently, I disagree that it should be that way. Grading is probably the most important segment of collecting whether it be coins, stamps, or electric trains. I realize many people in the train hobby actually play with their collections, but that is no reason that they should ignore grading.

Why is grading so important? Mainly because you will probably buy more trains, and someday you will sell your trains. Wouldn't it be a good thing to know that you are receiving what you are paying for? And wouldn't it be nice to have an accurate idea of what your collection is worth so that you or your loved ones will realize an honest amount?

Recently when talking with a collector from England who had me pull an engine to describe to him, I remember him telling me that he didn't understand our grading system. He couldn't get the idea of describing the condition of a piece with one or two words. And from there he made me give him my account from every angle, every little detailed piece of information I could possibly give him about that American Flyer engine over the next 30 minutes. I thought it was worth it because he ordered the engine and was going to put a check in the mail. Unfortunately the check never arrived! So much for long distance grading!!

Several years ago I traveled to purchase a collection around five hours away. I was pretty confident there wouldn't be a problem. After all this guy who happened to have a sizable and high grade collection was a contributor to Greenburg's Lionel Guide, and was acknowledged in the front of the book itself. I hadn't a doubt this collection would be graded correctly.

That was until I actually started looking through his collection. Piece after piece was over graded. It seemed like he had graded every piece Excellent or Like New, ignoring the chips, cracks, rust, scratches, broken parts or other problems that were very apparent. The collection was so bad that after looking through only a small portion I shook my head and headed for the door.

I remember him commenting ‘I'm not worried'. As I hurriedly made my way out the door. The reason he should have been worried was that he had the whole collection priced at excellent and like new! No one in their right mind would pay that much for an over graded collection.

My second bad experience was more recently when I traveled 9 hours this time to look at a collection that the seller had reassured me over and over that it was graded correctly. He told me a former president of a very powerful National Train Organization had looked it over and saw no problems.

Well if that is true, the former president has no business grading trains!!! The first item I saw which was proudly displayed in his living room was the Like New 2037 girl's train engine. Evidently Like New to him actually was a nice looking Very Good piece. Unfortunately it had to many paint chips to be graded excellent. I admit that was the worse example in the collection, but it set the tone. And after an hour of looking through the collection finding most of the items graded New were actually Like New, Like New were actually Excellent. With almost every piece I questioned he blamed it on the seller. It was obvious to me by this time unfortunately that this guy didn't know the first thing about grading. He was relying on other people who were either dishonest, or didn't know how to grade themselves. I made him a counter offer which he refused, and then I drove the 9 hours back home that day!

These are two good examples why it is very important that anybody who participates in this hobby should acquire as much knowledge on grading as possible. You have to be realistic and consistent whether you are buying or selling! If you aren't, you are kidding yourself and it will blow up in your face some day. If you don't know how to grade and you are buying trains, you are asking for trouble.

I am going to use Greenburg's definitions for grading, and maybe throw some of my grades and comments in as well. Let's start at the bottom.

Trash - Ok, this is mine. I made this up. But actually this probably is a legitimate grade. Trash is just that. There is no reason to keep it. Throw it away and the space it took up will look and smell much better!

Fair - ‘well scratched, chipped, dented, rusted or warped condition.' First of all I disagree with this account of Fair condition. It depends on the degree to which it is chipped or warped or rusted. Let's say you have a 2033 engine which many times has some warpage, but it is very, very minor. Do you automatically call it Fair? Of course not. Or if there is a very minor chip, or a very small amount of surface rust?. It is more proper to state the actual grade of the piece say Very Good with a small chip or minor warpage, and so on. I have run across people who actually did go by the book on grading, and they never bought anything, because they couldn't find anything that didn't have a minor spot of rust or small dent, etc. In some cases especially with chips you might want to down grade the item one grade and then describe the problem. My point I guess is that if you have a small area of surface rust say on the door guides to a 6464 car, you do not call it Fair instead of Very Good. A better description of fair condition might be the overall piece is very well used, and/or abused with chips, scratches, and/or heavy rust. I believe Fair to be the third most rare grade because many were mistaken for Trash and thrown away!!

Good - ‘scratched, small dents, and dirty.' This is so vague, I can understand why people reading this guidebook would be confused. I've always described the grade Good as being ‘not so good'. The item is very usable, not overly abused, but shows heavy use, scratches, and maybe dents. The book doesn't say anything about rust, so I am assuming some rust could be a factor in this condition. Dirty? I would assume they are talking about the ground in type dirt that can't be removed. I sell many items that are dirty or dusty mainly because I am allergic to dust and don't clean trains. But if it is dirty and can be cleaned obviously an otherwise Excellent piece is not going to be down graded to Good!!

Very Good - ‘few scratches, no dents, rust or warpage: very clean.' OK, I've always described Very Good condition as ‘average use and no abuse'. I see more trains in this category than any other. It would be considered more or less a middle grade.

Excellent - ‘minute scratches or nicks; no dents or rust: exceptionally clean.' That is a good definition of Excellent condition with the exception of no rust. Once again if you have a beautiful American Flyer Boxcar with a few specs of rust on the base, they do not affect this grade. I see this all the time, and actually with a shot or two of WD-40 usually the rust is easily removed. And don't forget if there is even the smallest minute scratch on an item, technically you cannot call it Like New. That is why I sometimes use plus' to describe items. For instance I might call an item as I just described as Excellent+++.

Like New ‘free of blemishes, nicks or scratches: original condition throughout, with vibrant colors: only faint signs of handling or use: price includes original box.' I always like to describe Like New condition as ‘looks new, but you can tell it has been run by turning it over and seeing some wear on the wheels'. Sometimes I buy collections that are actually new, but have been displayed and have acquired a little dust. I would down grade the item to Like New and maybe ad ‘dust' to the description. But the key here is if you have a post war item and there is wear on the wheels or rollers that is obviously more than factory testing, the item can't be New. This is where some people try to push the grade. And another tricky part is figuring out if the very light wear on the rollers came from factory testing or not!

New - ‘brand new, absolutely unmarred, all original and unused, in original packaging with all paperwork provided by the manufacturer.' I feel that an item can be new without the paperwork, however that should be noted in the description. I have had items that I knew were New, but that didn't have the box. Unfortunately without the original box you really can't call the item New. However please note that some items such as the Canadian Pacific and Rio Grande B Units from the Modern era never came with boxes, so of course they are the exception.

Restored - The item is repaired and painted to the original colors of the piece. The colors should be a perfect if not very close match to the original colors.

Painted - What I call the item if it has new paint and doesn't fit the definition of Restored.

Obviously there will always be some disagreement on grading by different individuals. However I can pretty much assure you that if you go by the definitions above, when it is time to sell your collection, you and the buyer will have no problems as far as grading.

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Revised 12/30/99
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