Beatles 1964 header 1

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

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.

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 …

 

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!

 

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 the money re­turned!

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

 

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 Spider-Man 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.

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!

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. (As of De­cember 28, 2019, it is no longer listed on eBay.)

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?

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.

 

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

 

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.

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.

 

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).

Still sealed in factory shrinkwrap

A still-factory-sealed album al­most al­ways has 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.’

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 an­other re­tail outlet) or some­thing 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 sticker from the re­tailer ad­ver­tising the re­duced price of $2.99 for the album. The pres­ence of ei­ther sticker 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.

 

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.

 

It is im­pos­sible to KNOW that the record in­side a still-sealed jacket is the cor­rect record. It is also im­pos­sible to KNOW that the record in­side a still-sealed jacket is an un­played mint record. 4

 

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 the full re­tail price and in cut-out 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 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 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 web­site, 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.

It is im­pos­sible to know that the record in­side a still-sealed jacket is the cor­rect record. It is also im­pos­sible to know that the record in­side the still-sealed jacket is an un­played mint record. Click To Tweet

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 found still-sealed in its orig­inal wrap­ping is valu­able and worth many times its NM value.

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   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 to 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.”

4   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.

5   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.

 

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Bit like grading sur­plus stock and re­turns - A/B/C grades

(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.

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!

(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) 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!

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!

Thanks Neal, it does in­deed help.