on grading records for sale part 1: ‘still sealed’ and ‘mint’ are not the same thing

A FRIEND WAS LEARNING THE ROPES of making money by selling other people’s ‘collectables’ by auctioning them on eBay. It’s his experience that inspired this article, “Grading Records for Sale Part 1.” Let’s pretend his name is Luke. As the bulk of Luke’s consignments were from friends, it was a reasonably relaxed affair and no one was trying to pull the wool over the other’s eyes.

Because it was sealed, you couldn’t even assure the buyer that the correct figure was in the box—anything could have been in there!

Someone turned a collection of superhero/action figures over to Luke and he did the requisite preliminary research and discovered that most of the items were in the $10-50 range.

But there was one biggie in the bunch: a four-figure collectable that is on many collectors’ want-lists. In fact, it had sold for as much as $1,400 in mint condition and the one that Luke had to sell was better than Mint: it was still in its shrinkwrapped box!

A nice BIG payment from the buyer loomed before Luke . . .

So, Luke placed a number of the lesser figures up to alert collectors that he would be selling more and better items in the near future. Finally, the big item went up for auction and the winning bid was $1,200.1

Needless to say, Luke was delighted with the results! Until he heard back from the buyer: the figure was supposedly defective and the buyer wanted to make an arrangement about the deal. He wanted money returned!

A nice BIG refund to the buyer of the figure loomed before Luke . . .

Open and defective

Needless to say, Luke was furious! He believed that this was some sort of rip-off attempt by the buyer. He went through all of the necessary protocol with eBay and PayPal but found himself in a situation where he had to make a partial refund—the customer was willing to keep the item, but not at the winning bid of $1,200—or accept the item as a return, and then offer the item a second time, only this time it would have to be advertised as opened and defective!

Spiderman_Boxed

This is NOT the item that Luke sold at auction for more than a thousand dollars on eBay. It is simply an example that I chose to illustrate a point: if the box is sealed and does not have a glassine window through which the figure can be seen, how then can anyone know for certain that the Spiderman figure is in the box? How can anyone know for certain the condition of whichever figure is in the box? This is the dilemma that sellers face when advertising a sealed item and having to assign a grade to the unseen item.

He finally called me, exasperated and angry about the whole process, feeling that he had been cheated. I asked some questions and the conversation that ensued went something like this:

Neal: What did you grade the item?

Luke: Mint.

Neal: And how did you arrive at that grade?

Luke: What do you mean? It was still sealed in its box!

Neal: Yes. Exactly! It was still sealed . . . so how then did you determine that it was in mint condition?

Luke: But it had to be mint! What else could it be?

Neal: Damaged during manufacturing. Damaged during shipping to the hobby store where it was purchased. A lot of things. Hell, because it was sealed, you couldn’t even assure the buyer that the correct figure was in the box—anything could have been in there! And you couldn’t grade something that you hadn’t seen!

Luke: Well, then how should I have graded it?

Neal: Look, Luke, you can’t grade it if you can’t see it. It’s that simple.

Luke: But I have to put some kind of grade on it!

Neal: No, you don’t have to grade it—but you do have to describe it. A grade of any sort is just shorthand for a description. You could have said something like, ‘Still factory sealed in its original box. Sold as is with the understanding that you are buying it to keep as a sealed item in your collection. I cannot be held responsible for the contents, as I have never seen it.’ Or something along those lines.

Luke: But that would have lowered the bidding!

Neal: Yup. ‘Fraid so . . .

Again, this was not what ol’ Luke wanted to hear: he was more inclined to believe that a scam was being pulled and that he was powerless to stop it—and he could have been right. We will never know. But that is not the point that I needed to get Luke to understand, the lesson that I needed him to learn. (And the lesson I am hopefully making with my readers here and now . . .)

So then, this is the first part in a series of articles addressing the issue of buying and selling ‘still sealed’ record albums. I will provide explanations for various terms such as sealed albums, still-sealed albums, and factory-sealed albums—which are necessarily synonymous—and the problem of resealed albums.

This is not a new issue; it has plagued the hobby since it began organizing itself in the late 1970s (spurred by the initial editions of the Hamilton-Osborne series of price guides for O’Sullivan Woodside).

Still sealed albums for sale

A sealed copy of Tower ST-5139, THE ARROWS PLAY MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE WILD IN THE STREETS, is currently running on eBay with a Buy It Now price of $199.98. It is item #261070573783 and has apparently been available for that price for more than two years.

This asking price is adventurously high in the Avid Record Collector’s opinion: a normal near mint (NM) copy can usually be purchased for about $25-30. Another still-sealed copy sold on eBay for $55 in 2012, while a still-sealed Canadian copy went for $50 in 2013.

But that is not why I mention it here: the determinedly optimistic dealer lists the album as “sealed”—but only as “sealed.” He does not state that it is factory-sealed, so it could be resealed.2

What does that mean?

Sealed is not necessarily still-sealed

When a potential buyer reads the adjective sealed applied to an album for sale, what 90% of them (that’s us, you and me) reads is “This album is still sealed in its original factory shrinkwrap and the jacket is flawless and the record is unplayed mint.” Yet such may not be the case.

What does that mean?

Using the term still-sealed-in-original-factory-shrinkwrap is not a matter of semantics.

Purchasing an album advertised as “sealed” or “still sealed” does not necessarily mean that you are purchasing an album that is still in factory-sealed shrinkwrap. To be certain that you are buying a factory-sealed album, inquire of the seller as to whether he can verify that it is factory-sealed.

Then make sure that he will accept its return and guarantee a full refund if it is not! (With eBay, that’s going to happen anyway of you press the issue with a complaint.)

The seller should advertise such an album as “still sealed in original factory shrinkwrap” and guarantee a return if such turns out not to be the case.

(It is important to know that I am not mentioning all of this to call this particular eBay seller’s integrity into question. Mistaking resealed albums for factory-sealed albums has been a bugaboo in this hobby for decades. In fact, zoom in on the image and you can see the heat-sealed seam on the right side of the album, which would seem to indicate that the album is, in fact, still factory sealed. Nonetheless, this particular ad is just a perfect example for my lesson here.)

Still-sealed is not necessarily factory-sealed

The use of terms such as ‘sealed’ or ‘still-sealed’ versus the far more accurate and trustable ‘still-sealed-in-original-factory-shrinkwrap’ is not merely a matter of semantics (ever a misused word). In the majority of cases, they can be thought of as synonymous as most ‘sealed’ records are ‘factory-sealed.’

And even resealed albums usually contain mint records. Each of these terms needs to be understood by sellers and buyers and used by sellers in their ads!

“Shrinkwrap is a very thin, clingy plastic film used to coat a record jacket in order to ensure that the jacket remains unscathed throughout the distribution process, and it’s similar to the household plastic wrap you use to heat up your leftovers.” (Record Pressing)

The shrinkwrapping of albums began in earnest by the major American record companies in 1964 and quickly overtook the industry. The UK and Europe took several more years before adopting the process and making it a staple with the manufacturing of LPs. So, any American album with a release date prior to 1964 in shrinkwrap should be suspect as it could be a later pressing.

Still sealed in factory shrinkwrap

A still-factory-sealed album almost always have high quality plastic that is completely clear. It has been shrunk, or molded, to fit the jacket perfectly. The seam is usually toward the open side of the jacket and is aesthetically unobtrusive.

When a sealed album has a company sticker affixed to the shrinkwrap that advertises the presence of a hit single on the record or a bonus photo or poster sealed within the album, you almost certainly have a ‘still factory sealed album.’


Elvis_FromMemphis_Sealed

This is an example of a still-sealed album with a company sticker affixed to the shrinkwrap on the front that advertises a pair of bonus photos inside the album. The presence of such a sticker always indicates a truly still-factory-sealed album (unless someone gets around to counterfeiting the stickers, which would hardly be cost effective).

Similarly but secondarily, when you have a sealed album that has a retail store’s price sticker affixed to the shrinkwrap, you almost certainly have a ‘still factory sealed album.’ Such stickers might say “Suggested Retail Price: $4.99 / Korvettes’ Price: $3.99” (or Sam Goody’s or Tower Records or an other retail outlet) or something/anything similar.


RollingStones_Decembers_Sealed

This is an example of a still-sealed album with both a company sticker affixed to the shrinkwrap on the front that advertises a pair of hit singles, and a price sicker from the retailer advertising the reduced price of $2.99 for the album. The presence of either stickers always indicates a truly still-factory-sealed album (unless someone gets around to counterfeiting the stickers, which would hardly be cost effective). 

Resealing unsealed albums

Rewrapping, or resealing, albums became a rather common occurrence with the over-pressing of albums so that they would “ship gold” in the early ’70s. This coincided (and we all know there are no coincidences) with and may have been attributable to the RIAA altering their requirements for certifying an album for a Gold Record Award: no longer were actual sales required, but a record company’s records of shipments would qualify!

Hence an explosion of large press-runs of first pressings, near instantaneous gold record awards, and in many cases near instantaneous returns of albums whose demand didn’t last more than a few weeks after its release date.3

This was followed by the explosive growth of the ‘cut-out bin’ in practically every record shop in the country.

NOTE: With any of the aforementioned of sealing, it is impossible to KNOW that the record inside the sealed jacket is, in fact, the correct record. It is also impossible to KNOW that the record inside the sealed jacket is, in fact, an unplayed mint record. One can assume these things to be so and one will almost always be correct, with “almost” being the operative word in this sentence.4

The invention of the cut-out album

A ‘cut-out record’ was a record that has been deleted from the record company’s active catalog and sold for a fraction of its normal wholesale price. Since LPs were rarely pressed in massive quantities for any but the biggest sellers, there were not a lot of cut-outs prior to the 1970s. In the 1960s and ‘70s, American record companies had a very lax policy regarding returns and many records were returned by customers after one or two hearings.

Most cut-outs from any decade almost always contain mint records—almost always, but not always.

Got that? Record albums were returned not because they were defective but simply because the customer did not like the music! The companies simply wrote the returns off of their taxes (which means they made money), and then resold them at a fraction of the normal wholesale price (which means they made money again). Then they then ended up in cut-out bins all over the country.5

With the over-production of records, current (in-print) albums could be found for full retail price and in cut-out, or discount, bins at the same time. This made accepting returns difficult, hence the industry-wide adoption of mutilating the album jacket to mark it as an item that had been sold at less than wholesale and could not be returned.6

Most cut-outs from any decade (the 1960s through the ‘80s) almost always contained mint records—almost always, but not always. And by the end of the ‘70s, they were often re-sealed in an inferior shrinkwrap—the most obvious way to recognize a re-sealed album is by a visible heat-seam running up the back of the wrap.


Miles_Kind_sealed

This is an example of the inner ‘baggie’ that Columbia used in the 1950s into the second half of the ’60s. As you can see, it is clear plastic, loosely wrapped around the record (that is, it is NOT shrunk via heat), and it is round like the record except for the ‘side’ that opens. This copy of Miles’s KIND OF BLUE is an original label mono and sold for more than $300. Had this been a stereo pressing, it probably would have fetched four figures . . .

Baggie-wrapped albums

Prior to 1964 and industry-wide shrinkwrapping, some albums were either shipped by record companies sealed or were sealed by the wholesaler. These wraps were a thicker plastic—and were not film-like as one associates with shrinkwrap—and were heat-sealed closed but were not heat-shrunk. Thus they were a loose fit around the jacket and are often referred to as baggie wrap.

In the ‘50s, both Columbia and Decca (at least) often wrapped the record, not the jacket, in a loose wrapper: it was round except for one ‘side’ which had a perforated seal that could be easily torn open and the record slid out.

In a thread titled “how were records sealed before shrink wrap was invented?” on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums site you can read the rampant confusion based on faulty memory on abundant misinformation concerning the wrapping of albums from the ‘50s into the ‘80s!

Finally, I could take the time and research and write endlessly about this topic, but won’t. If I have missed anything important, please do not hesitate to contact me and make an addition, correction, or suggestion.


Beatles_1964_header

FEATURED IMAGE: The original image at the top of this page was a sealed copy of a Capitol pressing of the Beatles’ HELP! album. But large, square images make terrible featured images on WordPress, so I have opted for this great shot of the Fab Four at the peak of Beatlemania. It’s here as a reminder than  ANYTHING by and about the Beatles from the’60s that is found still sealed in its original wrapping is valuable—worth many times its NM value.

 


FOOTNOTES:

  I am being vague about the details so that the exact circumstances and individuals involved are unknowable in this article on grading records for sale part 1.

2   The ad actually advertises the album as “Sealed Mint Rare.” Well, it is sealed and it may be mint, but it is hardly rare. The would-be seller also states that “This is a Sealed Album and will perform with the Ultimate Sound Possible from this Recording.” Like Luke, he is making claims that he cannot support, here regarding the aural excellence of the record. The record inside could be poorly pressed, pressed on inferior vinyl, slightly warped, or otherwise defective. Chances are slim that none of the above are so, but only the person who opens the album and actually sees and plays the record—here the winning bidder/buyer—will ever know. But, as they say, ‘Caveat emptor!’

3   It got so bad that record companies were shipping the requisite numbers of units for certification—approximately 550,000 in the first few years of the seventies—and getting their RIAA certification so that they could use the Gold Record as a selling point—for a record that hadn’t necessarily gone gold via retail sales! They then accepted hundreds of thousands of returns on some titles, essentially negating the gold standard level of ‘sales.’ But too late, as once an album is certified by the RIAA, it stays certified. The exact number of albums that received a Gold Record Award but never reached the gold level mark in sales is not known, nor is it likely to even be a topic of conversation among industry execs . . .)

Here’s an in-your-face statement: most people writing about Gold and Platinum Record Awards on the Internet know next to nothing about the criteria used by the RIAA for making the awards prior 1976! The short explanation is that from 1958 through 1975, the award was based solely on dollar amounts: an album had to sell $1,000,000 at the wholesale level to qualify for an RIAA Gold Record Award. Period. Unit sales were not considered. Period. For more information, refer to “Understanding RIAA Gold And Platinum Record Awards Of The Sixties.”

  Capitol Records actually used a variety of different colored inner sleeves—each advertising other company titles and their then successful record club—for their albums in the ‘60s. Each color corresponded with a certain time period (more or less). Collectors have used the color of the inner sleeve—which can often be seen in a still-sealed album, and if that is not possible then a small slice in the shrinkwrap can be made to see it—to determine a reasonably accurate determination of a record’s pressing based on the color.

  In the ‘60s, Warner/Reprise designated many of their cut-outs by shooting a small metal grommet into the upper left corner of the jacket. MGM and its subsidiaries often had an ‘X’ stamped into the back cover, or stamped with ink onto the back cover. Many companies drilled a small hole into the album.

6  My aging (addled?) memory tells me that the first albums designated as cut-outs this way had one the upper corners lightly clipped. As the returns piled up and the demand for cut-outs increased—and apparently as the expectations of the buyers plummeted—the clipped corners got bigger (nasty they were) and then the even nastier ‘saw-mark’ appeared. This was a straight cut a quarter of an inch thick and one to three inches in length, usually in one of the upper corners of the jacket.

 
 
 
 

13 Replies to “on grading records for sale part 1: ‘still sealed’ and ‘mint’ are not the same thing”

  1. (1) Were promo copies sent to stores sent sealed? (2) Incidentally, I recently bought a sealed album with no indication of it being a promo on the cover, (3) but once opened the label certainly was promotional and the record was in VG+, at best, condition. So it felt to me like it was a resealed album. (4) I didn’t pay attention to the style of shrink wrap though.

    1. MATTHEW

      Thanks for the comment! I took the liberty of numbering your statements above so that I could more easily (and less confusedly) address them, one at a time.

      Okay:

      (1) Records with promotional labels were usually made for air-play and were shipped to radio stations via mail, although some were sent to shops for in-store play.

      (2) Not all record companies identified promotional albums with stickers or stamped notifications. That was common but not universal.

      (3) If the record you purchased was degraded through handling and play, then you most certainly bought a resealed album.

      (4) I assume that you will pay attention from this point on. Everyone who collects records and buys them through the mail has had something similar to this happen to them. One of the reasons that established dealers with great reputations command much higher prices is that stuff like this rarely, if ever, happens when you buy from them.

      You should contact the seller, make a complaint, and ask for a refund. Please let me know what happens . . .

      Hoping this helps a wee bit,

      NEAL

  2. Thanks Neal.
    I bought it at a thrift so I’m a little disappointed, but I’m not complaining as it was really just cosmetic.

    Were the promo-labeled albums sent to radio stations & stores sent sealed? I realize it’s a bit of a minutiae detail, but I’m curious even though it’s probably a “sometimes yes, sometimes no” answer.

    Cheers!

  3. MATTHEW

    Wow! I numbered the statements in your first inquiry for my ease in answering and then failed to answer your first question! So, to answer (1) (above): few if any promotionally pressed and labeled LP records were shrinkwrapped prior to shipping.

    Okay, here’s why: shrinkwrap was invented to make the album more attractive to a potential buyer, and to keep it in “like new” condition. (Trust me that record companies did not ever refer to their products as being in “mint” condition when shipping them for sale.)

    A perfect jacket with a perfect record is also more attractive to a potential buyer than a jacket than has been dirtied, worn, scratched, etc., by being pawed through by potential customers.

    Promos were essentially gifts, given to radio stations for use. In fact, the more battered and mattered the jacket of a radio station’s album, the more often that record was played by that station. Which is exactly what the record companies wanted!

    That being said, many radio station, promo LPs from the past are often found in nearly perfect condition, because the DJs never played the record!

    So, it’s NOT “sometimes yes, sometimes no.” It’s almost always “NO”!

    Hoping this helps,

    NEAL

    PS: The sealed promo that you bought at the thrift shop was probably resealed by a used record store years ago and found its way to the thrift shop circuitously . . .

  4. (1) I think you cover everything very well. Personally, I don’t see why anybody who wants to play a still sealed record would buy one via the internet. The last time I purchased a sealed album via ebay, the seller said it was still sealed (and it was) but the cover was damaged.

    Turns out the damage looked like something heavy had been dropped on the cover. I opened it up, saw a very damaged record inside, and immediately contacted the seller for a refund.

    (2) Actually, I don’t see why anybody would sell anything still sealed via the internet. The seller could have resealed a defective record (maybe hoping the buyer wants it just to keep it sealed), and the buyer could open it, claim it’s defective, and send back a lower grade copy that they already owned.

    (3) But, if anybody has to buy or sell anything still sealed over the internet, I believe your definitions of the various kinds of “sealed” are well thought out. Unfortunately, most sellers don’t know what they’re doing (or don’t care), so they won’t heed your advice, but hopefully a few will.

    1. MACKDADDYG

      Thankee kindlee. (1) Your experience proves my point: the seller could have done it intentionally (“Well, the ad never said it was STILL sealed . . .”) or of ignorance. Either way, you did not get what you paid for. Hoping you did get a refund. Also, you could kind of make an argument that paying BIG bucks for a sealed album from an unknown person sight unseen (the goods and the seller) is rather looney, but, being of liberal persuasion, I tend to think almost everyone does the right thing almost all the time.

      (2) The act you describe does, in fact, occur, but apparently not all that often or I would have been aware of it as a dealer complaint all these years.

      (3) After thirty plus years of publishing price guides, writing articles for magazines, and now the Internet, I have found that those who NEED to read such advice rarely FEEL that need. And it ain’t that they’re just plain looney, it’s more a matter of arrogance or, worse, a carelessness about life in general . . .

      Keep on keepin’ on,

      NEAL

  5. (1) A great article, thank you for sharing your insight. I especially like the side stories of forced Gold Record Awards and the invention of the cutout. There must not have been much impetus to change that RIAA loophole, since the cutout practice continued through the eras of cassettes and CDs. Has the gold record criteria changed, or are shipping figures still used (as opposed to actual sales figures)?

    (2) Do you know, how were previously made records shipped during the shrink-wrap transitional period? That is, copies that were produced pre-shrinkwrap, but not yet shipped/distributed when shrink came along (working under the assumption that some titles sold slowly and could linger in the warehouse during this time). Did record companies or distributors retro-fit their back stock with shrink-wrap, or just new titles?

    (3) Re: Your conversation above with Matthew about whether or not white label promos got shrink-wrapped. I’m really glad this question came up, because I found one of these a few months ago. It’s a title I would’ve normally passed by, but the fact that it is sealed piqued my interest. Columbia ES 1924, El Trio Los Panchos “Armando Manzanero Vol 2”. Not really a thing someone would try to artificially upgrade by resealing.

    But everything appears to be a legit WLP: a commercial version with large white timing strip on the cover, under the shrink. Haven’t opened it to see if the labels are WLP, but the shrink has all trappings you mention for being factory applied: neat, correct, small seam on the right, couple of small breathe holes, etc. No cutouts, no promo stamps.

    Whaddya think? I guess I’m just so hesitant to open it because it’s the only sealed one I’ve seen. Now you make me think that it could be the last one I’ll see… 🙂 An amusing conundrum for a record so far from my wheelhouse!

    (4) Re: “And by the end of the ‘70s, they were often re-sealed in an inferior shrinkwrap—the most obvious way to recognize a re-sealed album is by a visible heat-seam running up the back of the wrap.” True for records of that time frame, but by the early 90s that style of shrink was being adopted by smaller and underground record labels for all of their new releases. The wrap is just as thin but not always shrunk, or only lightly shrunk, with an overlapping seam running up the middle of the back.

    I have many, many examples from small punk, indie and hip hop labels from the 90s through today of this sort of shrink wrap. I only mention this to try to bring perspective to your statement above: funky shrink-wrap like this can mean “reseal” in one era, but mean “original seal” in another.

    “Factory sealed” in the latter case could semantically be a misnomer, since it could easily have been sealed by the owner of a tiny record label stuffing and sealing sleeves himself by hand; not really a factory, and in my opinion, more prone to small blemishes from the more hands-on packaging process. This DIY process is still used today by even mid-level record labels who want to embrace the DIY spirit and aesthetic.

    (5) One final note: Personally, my pains in the past with old sealed records have had more to do with finding a warped record inside of truly factory sealed “new old stock”. I can only assume that: if nobody found it interesting enough to even open, how were they treating or storing it for the last XX years? One more point that speaks to: “just because it’s sealed, doesn’t mean it’s Mint”.

    Thanks again for your wonderful article!

    1. AG

      Thanks and glad the piece helped. Now, your questions:

      (1) Since nothing physical exists to change hands anymore, and so many millions of “albums” are downloaded without payment, I simply stopped paying attention to the non-sense-ical changes the RIAA makes in their criteria. Meaning that I can’t answer your question.

      (2) I do not KNOW the answer to that question—but since doing so would require shipping the records a back to wholesalers/record companies to be shrinkwrapped, and then shipped a back (the third shipment) to the retailers—all of which would eat away at the profit margin—I would think the answer negative.

      (3) I do not recall ever having seen a title & timing strip beneath what appeared to be a factory sealed shrinkwrap. I am guessing that the Columbia “ES” indicates a Spanish market record. If so, that’s out of my league. Guessing that the record could have been manufactured here and then shipped there so extra caution was taken with the promos in transit. Or maybe it’s just an oddball . . .

      (4) Good point!

      (5) Do you mean the record was warped by heat (the warp being a bump in a portion of the disc), or do mean it was bent by the years of pressure from a too tight shrinkwrapping?

      Hope this helps and keep in touch!

      NU

      1. Hi Neal,

        Thanks for answering my questions!

        (1) Understood, I really only asked out of curiosity’s sake. So little in mainstream music interests me anymore, it’s hard to even care about record awards.

        (2) I was thinking about copies still in the possession of distributors; I wouldn’t expect retailers to send records back for shrink-wrapping either.

        (3) Did your comment get cut off? I really don’t know what to think about the record, but it’s just interesting enough to earn itself shelf space. One of these days it might get a spin. Just a curiosity for now.

        (4) Heat or pressure? Could be anything and everything. Maybe it sat at a 45 degree angle on a shelf with a box of canning jars on top in a Louisiana attic for 30 years. Who knows, but it’s kind of like diamonds, right? Just a little bit of heat and (or) pressure can make a big difference over enough time.

        Thanks again, always enjoy your inputs at the RCG. Should have looked up your blog sooner!

        1. (1) I will be posting a piece on a young English musician named Lawrence Bray. It will include a video of his band’s single “Out Of Control.” You will dig the music and the video . . .

          (2) Duh . . . hadn’t thought of that. Still doubt that they would have returned them: the work and expense would have been prohibitive.

          (3) Yes. I fixed it.

          (4) Agreed. In the end, it’s just damaged goods.

          Thanks. Now we have to find away to get the other Guilders here . . .

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