Analysis of 3rd Party Grading Companies
Collecting Aint Easy!
Today we talk about 3rd Party Grading (aka "Slabbing") with reference to comic books, video games, Pokémon cards, and Funko Pop figures. We first review a history of slabbing and possible justifications for the practice and then follow up with our ever growing table of all 3rd Party Grading companies in our database. The table includes images, examples, links and a market share analysis. Welcome to the complicated and confusing world of grading collectibles!
Once upon a time...
Years ago, collecting was easy. As a kid in the 1980's, my parents took me to the local comic shop (LCS) in my hometown of Penticton, British Columbia, Canada. The shop was called Bob's Comics. I started with Hockey Cards (hey, I live in Canada, what did you expect?). I bought a Gretzky Rookie for next to nothing. At the time, I didn’t buy it for the investment potential but I bought it because I loved the Edmonton Oilers.
Then in 1991 I transitioned to collecting comic books. In my opinion, 1991 was the most significant year in pop culture history for many reasons:
- SNES released in NA
- Battletoads, Super Castlevania, Metroid Return of Samus
- Terminator 2, TMNT II
- TNG: Data's Day, Darmok, The Drumhead
- Nervanna Nevermind, Soundgarden Badmotorfinger, GnR Use Your Illusion I & II
But most importantly, 1991 saw the issuance of Silver Surfer Vol 3 #50 followed by the infamous Infinity Gauntlet series - the importance of which cannot be understated to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I remember seeing Thanos's stony scowl on the cover of SS50. I was instantly attracted to artist Ron Lim’s rendition of Thanos, solemnly looming over the silver embossed surfer with intense gravitas. I must say that this cover inspired me to collect.
It was a simple time when collectors bought what interested them or that inspired them. We bought locally, straight off the shelf or fresh from a wax pack. If it was vintage, we trusted our dealers with the prices they asked and we trusted them when they eyeballed a grade.
So what caused collecting to become complicated?
Personally, I would put the blame on the rise of variant comic book covers. But today we discus 3rd Party Grading, how it has complicated collecting, and why it is a necessary evil in today’s collecting world.
What is 3rd Party Grading?
3rd Party Grading is when an independent 3rd party "professionally" (and I use this term lightly because there is no professional grader designation) inspects a collectible, assigns it a grade, and then encapsulates it in a protective case. The grade and other details like title and date are displayed on a label and often include a hologram of some sort for security. Many slabs are given a unique ID which can be searched to help verify authenticity. Some grading companies are respected in the collecting community, while some are not. Using the table below will help you research the respected companies.
Card grading is thought to have started as early as 1994 with Accugrade Sportscard Authentication (ASA), however the Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) is considered the first company to popularize the practice. PSA has been grading sports cards since the early 1990's but things didn’t catch on until 1998 when eBay reached its initial height of popularity. Following this, Beckett (BGS) then expanded to card grading in 1999, and the Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) started with comics in 2000.
What makes 3rd Party Grading so complicated?
The following can be considered the most common areas of complaint when using 3rd Party Grading:
- There Are Too Many 3rd Party Grading Companies
- Complicated Submission Process
- It's Costly
- Long Turnaround Times
- Lack of a Common Grading Scale
1. There Are Too Many 3rd Party Grading Companies
The collecting discipline is currently in a "Gold Rush" phase for 3rd Party Grading as new companies are springing up like gophers. High demand coupled with lucrative grading fees have enticed many new players to join the market. NerdMelon finds new grading companies to add to the list every week. Many collectors choose to simplify their choices and stick with the “Big 6” (PSA, BGS, CGC, CBCS, WATA, VGA), but there are some serious contenders that you may want to consider. They often offer lower prices and far less wait times. Ace Grading (Pokémon Cards), P1 (Video Games), VVGS (Funko), and HALO (Comics) are some examples of excellent grading companies with much faster turnaround times than the Big 6.
Even if you are sticking to the Big 6, there are a few things to be aware of. Knock-off grading companies purposely use deceitful labelling to trick unsuspecting collectors. Take for example:
The label designs are very similar, but PSA is one of the Big 6, while BGS is virtually unheard of. Do you think the similarity of the label design was coincidence or done on purpose?
Muddying the waters even more are those companies that have branches that use different acronyms. Take for example, Beckett Grading Services (BGS). They also run Beckett Collectors Club Grading (BCCG) and Beckett Vintage Grading (BVG); or Video Game Authority (VGA) which is actually part of a larger consortium called Collectible Grading Authority (CGA). CGA is the parent company of the Action Figure Authority (AFA), Collectible Doll Authority (CDA), Die-Cast Authority (DCA), and Video Game Authority (VGA). Furthermore, many grading companies have gone out of business and their websites have been wiped clean, but you can still find their slabs on auction sites. For example, the following slabs are from now defunct grading companies:
2. Complicated Submission Process
Check out any website on the list below and you'll see that the submission process is not straightforward. They all indicate that it is easy, but it's not. Many have pricing tiers, meaning you pay for grading based on the Fair Market Value (FMV) of your collectible. For the average collector, it is difficult to estimate FMV (good thing NerdMelon is there to help!), but issues can occur if you don’t get it right. If you’re too high, the 3rd Party Grading company will calculate their fees based on the highest quoted value meaning you pay more than you should. If you calculate FMV too low, the 3rd party will re-assess based on their own appraisal and charge you for the difference.
Some offer flat rate pricing which definitely helps. But no matter what, you'll be sending valuable items through the mail, often over borders, and that is going to make any process complicated. Shipping, insurance, customs declarations, and company forms (some of which have to be hand signed and scanned) can complicate the process significantly. And let’s not forget that some grading companies force you to be a paying member of their “club” before you can use their services.
3. It's Costly
And that brings us to the next point….Collecting ain't cheap! Grading tiers will be calculated based on FMV. The following is an excerpt taken from the WATA Games website on 2022-01-12:
Games valued $2,500 and up are charged an additional 2% of their declared value. If we find games on an order are undervalued we may have to adjust pricing on the order for correct liability costs.
So in addition to the regular hefty fee, you’ll be paying more based on the FMV to have them graded at WATA…and they will recalculate if you didn’t do it right. That’s $50 USD over and above the regular grading fee for a $2500 item. Do you have anything worth more? You'll also be paying shipping and insurance, both ways, so keep this in mind. And if you're in Canada like me, keep in mind that there will be brokerage fees at the border and always convert everything to USD before making your decision. Also, if you want faster service, you will pay more as well. See the next point...
4. Long Turnaround Times
It has been referred to as the "Mountain of Cardboard" – card grading companies are overflowing with mountains of submissions. This backlog causes delays and it is not uncommon to have submissions last 1 year or longer. I speak from personal experience but just do a search on the topic to see what collectors are saying. Each company states a reasonable waiting period. However, the fine print will usually say that the waiting periods are just estimates. Some companies, like WATA, VGA, and KSA have actually frozen new submissions in order to catch up on backlog.
5. Lack of a Common Grading Scale
In general, we notice the following trends:
- Comic graders generally use 0.5-10.0 scale with 0.5 increments up to 9.0, then 0.2 increments to 10.0
- Card graders generally use 1-10 scale with 0.5 increments up to 10
- Video Game graders generally use 1-100 scale with 5.0 increments after 70
Many companies stick to the above standard model, many use a modified or tweaked version, while other still make up a completely new grading scale. Let's look at a modified version of one of the above scales. Take for example, Card Grading Australia (CGA). In researching this article, we noticed that CGA graded cards used both a standard card model like
as well as a 1-100 scale like
We reached out to CGA and asked what was going on and got this response:
Originally we used a 1-100 point scale on our tags. We now use the 1-10 point scale as was voted on by our customers last year. All cards now have their grade in the 1-10 point scale, with half points above seven.
So right there we have a single company (CGA) with slabs that use 2 different grading scales (1-10 & 1-100) and they've thrown their own variation of the 1-10 scale by only using the 0.5 increase after a grade of 7.
Here are some of the other ways we’ve seen the above tweaked. These are all excellent examples of how collecting has become complicated. There are many variations and collectors need to know the differences in how each grading company grades their product:
- Inconsistent numbering (ex. 9 vs 9.0 vs 9.00)
- Inconsistent half grades
- Inconsistent label colors that all mean different things
- Inconsistent grading for video games (game grades are all over the map)
- Some companies grade multiple types of collectibles and use different grading scales for each
- Some companies must witness signatures while others will authenticate signatures after the fact
- Some companies indicate a “premium” grade by notating the grade with a “+”
- Some companies grade Complete in Box (CIB) games and loose cartridges while others only grade sealed games
Consider also that the same grade for the same collectible will not translate into the same FMV between different grading companies. For example, check out these 3 auctions:
Three 'Buy It Now' auctions, each for the same comic (Avengers #1), sold within 2 months of each other and were all graded at 2.0 – one graded by CGC, one by CBCS and another by HALO. Here we see the CGC going for the highest amount followed by CBCS then the lesser-known HALO slab.
Why do we need 3rd party grading?
There are many valid reasons for grading your collectibles, such as the increased protection a slab provides over regular plastic, the increase in value, and in most cases the presentation value of a slabbed collectible is more appealing than the traditional raw item. However, we want to focus on the “assurance” factor of grading as we believe this to be the most important aspect of the practice.
As stated previously, demand for grading services correlated with the rise in popularity of online auction giant, eBay. Collectors were attracted to the online market as it gave them access to an entire world of collectibles. LCS were limited to what they had on their shelves. Online marketplaces have no limits – collectors can now “visit” shops from around the world. However, holding a collectible in your hand is not the same as looking at a picture, and sellers know this. Overgrading, overlooking defects (missing pages, restoration, improperly married manuals, etc.), and counterfeit items are much easier to sell online than in the LCS. The market has had to react and 3rd Party Grading companies are the answer. 3rd Party Grading companies give the market the assurance that the collectible is legitimate, albeit at a (sometimes significant) premium over raw versions.
So what can we do?
Collecting will never again be like it was at Bob’s Comics in the 80's. It’s more complicated now but that also means you have access to more choices. Collectors now have access to much more information than in the past. Doing research is now an essential part of collecting and there are many resources such as NerdMelon. NerdMelon is free – use the Advanced Search to help gauge a FMV, or use the table we’ve compiled to get some information on 3rd Party Grading companies.
Check out the our page on all 3rd Party Grading Companies found in the NerdMelon database. This is an ever growing document with new companies being discovered ever week.
Link: List of 3rd Party Grading Companies
Market Share Calculations
Of the many considerations (reputation, grading costs, grading times, packaging, insurance, physical location, holder design, etc.) needed to choose a grading company, sales data is perhaps the most important to consider. High sales data is a good sign that the market has embraced a grading company; low sales likely means a less expensive option and/or faster turnaround times. That said, NerdMelon has a wealth of data to share so we have conducted an analysis of our 2021 data that may help you with your grading decisions.
We have posted our 2021 analysis at the following link: 2021 Market Share Analysis of 3rd Party Grading Companies
So what about Bobs Comics?
Bob's comics is still in Penticton, although under a different name and management. It is now called Castle Comics and run by a fellow collector named Rich. If you’re ever in the Penticton then make sure to drop in. And what of those collectibles I bought as a kid? The Gretzky is currently in the Western Division of KSA Graders. I still own my original copy of SS50 but it’s not in a slabbable condition so I went online and bought a 9.8 newsstand edition! I also have games I owned as a kid in 1991 with both WATA and VGA, and a small batch of comics with Hero Restoration for cleaning and pressing before they send them off to CGC. Heck, I am even considering sending in a vaulted Dr. Doom Funko to the Vinyl Vault Grading System.