Subjective Grading

I have written before on this subject. I think grading is one of the most important elements of train collecting, and I think it is worth another look. When screening train collections that are offered to me for sale, one phrase I look for is ‘grading is subjective. Everyone grades differently.'

When negotiating on a collection that is not located close by that will take travel or shipping and I hear those words, I become very cautious. I've heard that many times before, and generally it means that the seller is saying that he doesn't necessarily grade by strict TCA standards. Now as I will explain later on, strict TCA standards have problems also. However I still think using common sense, grading as a general rule should not be all that subjective.

Since most of the train collections that I buy are far away, it is very important that both parties are grading using one criteria!

In that regard it is not a pleasant thought to travel several hundred miles by air or car only to find out that grading was a problem after all.

My worst experience was a couple of years ago. I had been cautious because most of this large post war collection was graded Like New or New. And the seller swore up and down that it was graded correctly. He even told me that the past President of the TCA had looked it over and agreed with the grading.

Well that convinced me and I drove the 10 hour trip to New Hampshire only to find that most new items were actually like new, like new items were mostly excellent and so on. There was a 1957 girls set which was supposed to grade like new with obvious paint chips on it.

Unfortunately I had traveled under the condition of no negotiation, which I will never do again. Even after pointing the grading discrepancies to the seller, he would not sell at a price adjusted for his over grading.

As I recall he was one to point out that grading is subjective.

Actually grading is not that subjective if you go by the TCA grading definitions, although as I did say, they do have something to be desired in grading standards that are defined on the TCA's web site.

When I grade I try my best to grade a little conservative, although fairly. After all I have to sell what I buy, and I have found that one of the most important things in this business (or any business for that fact) is customer satisfaction. If you consistently over grade, then obviously you will loose customers. That is not a good thing.

So I grade trains the same way whether I am buying or selling. I grade the same way whether the piece is modern or pre-war.

That's another fallacy some people have about grading older trains. They have the idea that if it is old, you can grade less strictly. I don't buy that at all, nor do I think it is a good practice. If it grades very good, it grades very good period. Ok if it is a little better than very good, but not a full excellent very good+ or excellent- might work well. The TCA mentions nothing about this in their definitions, but in my opinion the TCA definitions need work!

Just in case you are new to the train hobby, or not a TCA member, here are the exact definitions of grading standards from the Train Collectors Association.

Mint - Brand New, absolutely unmarred, all original and unused. — I see no comment specifying that the train may have a little wear on it's wheels. Although as a note especially for more modern trains, Lionel did test run some trains. However it should be obvious if this is the case. There should be no wear at all on the rollers form a very short test run. Also I just noticed that TCA uses the term Mint, where I use New. They are one in the same though as many dealers use New as well. I've always thought of the term Mint being more for paper items such as catalogs and stamps. However it works just fine if the TCA uses it.

Like New - Free of blemishes, nicks or scratches, original condition throughout; very little sign of use. — I am assuming that by ‘very little signs of use', TCA is not saying that there can be small paint chips or box wear. They are referring to the wheels or rollers showing that the engine was test run. This is a very big problem area for grading as I have seen many people grade items Like New when they do in fact have paint chips and small scratches. That is not an option when grading an item in Like New condition, and anyone who grades that way is kidding themselves. That is why New and Like New items command such a premium. They are very hard to find! Unless there was no original box issued for an item, I feel the original box should be stated unless specially noted.

Excellent - Minute nicks or scratches; no dents or rust — OK, here is a problem with TCA's grading. If a piece is exceptional, but has a trace of rust on the wheels or another metal part that is easily removable with WD-40, why not grade the item excellent? On the other hand if there is any rust that could not be easily removed, special steps have to be taken to mention the rust. For instance you could call the piece Excellent- (light rust), or some other description. I have seen items come right out of the box brand new that were stored wrong with light rust on them. Then you have to address the problem. You could call the piece New (light rust). It is just a matter of letting the prospective buyer know what he is getting. In a way this is not going by strict TCA standards, but at least you are giving the buyer notice.

Very Good - Few scratches, exceptionally clean, no dents or rust. — I'll be honest with you, the term ‘exceptionally clean' confuses me. Actually if they are defining clean as in no dirt or dust, well let's face it I've been over grading for years. Dirt and dust can be cleaned off, thus I don't think it should have anything to do with the grade. However the piece obviously should have no problems that aren't noted. This is a point that really needs to be addressed by the TCA in their grading standards.

Good - Scratches, small dents, dirty. — Once again I disagree that dirt has anything to do with grading as long as it can be cleaned. Perhaps they are referring to non-removable dirt, which I would agree with.

Fair - Scratched, chipped, dented, rusted, or warped condition. — Part of the problem with the TCA grading is they are not thought out well. So, fair can have rust, but what ever happened to the rust factor for good condition? Does that mean it can have rust or not, since there is no mention of rust in that condition?

Poor - Beat up, junk condition, some usable parts.

I still don't think that grading should be subjective, although some parts of it are only because of the vagueness of the definitions set by the TCA. With all due respect, I feel strongly that the TCA needs to address this problem and do some work on their grading definitions. They are in fact confusing people as to grading standards set by them. That is unless there is another more formal set of grading standards other than what they show on their web site that I am not aware of.

Regardless, the whole problem is solved if when you grade trains, you grade them the way you would want them graded when you buy them yourself.

As I said, grading is one of the most important parts of buying and selling trains. If everyone would realistically take some time in learning to grade correctly, it would solve many potential problems down the road.

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