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Go beyond book values when buying, selling and valuing records

Use these 10 Commandments to determine the real-world value of the records you buy, sell and collect — no mountain climbing or heavy stone tablets required.

Editor's Note: For more information about buying, selling and setting values for records, check out Goldmine's Standard Catalog of American Records, 8th Edition. To get your copy of this must-have reference book at our best price, click here now.

By Susan Sliwicki

When it comes to buying and selling records, there is a vast difference between the "value" a proud owner perceives the record to have and the price it actually will bring at the time of sale.

Changes in trends, tastes and even the economy are factors that go beyond your control and can happen very quickly. So how can you keep all of these factors in perspective, regardless of where you find yourself in the buying and selling equation?

Enter Goldmine’s 10 Commandments of Record Collecting. They aren't etched on stone tablets, but keeping these elements in mind will help you to accurately determine the real-world value of a record.

1. Thou shalt discern the record’s quality. Quality is not the same thing as condition. Quality relates to the materials that were used in the first place. When 78 RPM blues records were pressed in the 1920s to 1930s, manufacturers used either stock shellac or laminated discs. Stock shellac discs had a lower-quality playing surface, which made them prone to more noise at playback, while laminated discs (which were used by labels including Columbia and OKeh) featured a higher-quality playing surface. Likewise, quality can vary for vinyl records. For 12-inch records, the low end of the scale is 120-gram vinyl, with 150-gram vinyl considered a “heavy” weight, and anything pressed on 180- gram (or higher) vinyl deemed audiophile grade. Therefore, the higher the vinyl weight, the higher the initial quality and durability of a record.

dirty record

A warped, scratched and dirty record scoring a Near Mint condition grade? Not if you're following record grading guidelines, it isn't. Grading isn't done on a sliding scale according to age; it is all about the record's condition. Learn the criteria for record grades, follow them strictly (if in doubt, downgrade) and learn to practice both visual and play grading techniques. Shutterstock photo.

2. Thou shalt be ruthless when assessing condition. The Goldmine Grading Standard determines how well a given record, cover, label or sleeve has survived since its creation. These are high standards, and they are not on a sliding scale. A record or sleeve from the 1950s must meet the same standards as one pressed today. And just because you “took care” of your records doesn’t mean they automatically qualify for Near Mint status. Learn the grading criteria (see page 8), and apply those standards carefully to the records in your collection. If in doubt, always go with the lower grade under consideration.

3. Thou shalt not confuse rarity with value. You could take one painting each by Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, saw each painting in half, then attach one half Picasso to one half Pollock. It would result in a pair of one-of-a-kind pieces — a Pollcasso and a Picallock, if you will — but it is doubtful anybody would want those “rarities” as much as they wanted the intact originals.

To put it in record terms: You thought you bought a copy of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Street Survivors” album; the cover and labels were correct, after all. But when you put it on the turntable, you discovered the A-side was actually Steely Dan’s “Aja.” Or maybe the labels attached to the record are wrong, but the music on the record matches what the cover advertised. Or perhaps you bought a still-sealed record that advertised one group on the cover but contained a completely different artist’s album inside.

These “rarities” happen more often than you might think at a record pressing plant. And while these records certainly are unique, these aren’t the types of errors that typically draw big bucks. If anything, they negatively impact value and pose a source of frustration to the listener who was anticipating “What’s Your Name” and got “Black Cow” instead.

4. Thou shalt not equate age with value. Head to a garage sale, a thrift store or a relative’s attic, and chances are good you’ll find some old records. Now, you could find a beauty or two in the mix, but please realize that you’re far more likely to find common records, such as Frankie Yankovic’s “40 Hits I Almost Missed,” Tom Jones’ “Live In Las Vegas” and Glenn Miller’s “The Carnegie Hall Concert” (worth $5 or less apiece), than a rare 78 RPM of Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” Parts 1 and 2 on the Paramount label, which sold for $5,000 at auction. Condition, quality, demand and rarity carry more weight than age when determining value.

P.S. It's unrealistic to expect a record’s value to grow simply based upon the passage of time. Unions and Social Security automatically factor in “cost of living” increases to salary and benefits. Record markets don't work the same way. Don't believe me? Ask anyone with a basement full of Lawrence Welk records.

5. Thou shalt honor the laws of supply and demand. Meat Loaf’s claim that “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” doesn’t apply to record sales if the missing No. 3 is demand. No demand means no value; it doesn’t matter how fine or rare the record is unless others also want to own it and are willing to pay the price you are asking. Supply figures in, too. A quality record in great condition that also is in great supply means buyers will dictate its market worth.

Beatles’ records offer great examples of how (in tandem with quality, condition and rarity) supply and demand affect the market. Take a copy of Vee-Jay 581, “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You,” one of The Beatles’ early singles with a picture sleeve. The original owner was probably more concerned with enjoying the music than curating a collectible for future generations. The picture sleeve was likely pinned to a bedroom wall; the 45 was stacked — minus a protective sleeve — in a carrier to haul to dances or parties, where others handled it with varying degrees of care. All that adds up to why a NM pressing of Vee-Jay 581 with an equal-condition picture sleeve routinely will sell for $500 in today’s market.

Beatles Please Please Me Vee Jay 581

This copy of Vee-Jay 581 sold for $500 via Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions.

Even if you have a great-sounding, great-looking record pressed on high-quality vinyl, if multitudes are floating around with collectors, you don’t have rarity on your side, which is the case with Capitol 2056 (“Hello Goodbye”/“I Am The Walrus”). Capitol pressed this Beatles single about a dozen different ways and times between 1967 and 1988. Except for a green-label promo copy or a picture sleeve variation, don’t expect copies of Capitol 2056 to top $100, even in NM condition.

It doesn’t mean the record is bad. It just means it is plentiful in that condition, and anyone who wants to buy it doesn’t have to pay a premium. In contrast, a 12-inch acetate of The Beatles performing an unreleased version of “Paperback Writer” and “Hard Day’s Night” with a different opening chord brought nearly $8,000 at auction in 2010. This rarity had high demand from a multitude of collectors who were eager to hear something different from The Fab Four. It didn’t matter as much that the acetate was only in VG condition (which is still quite nice for something as fragile as an acetate, given the amount of time that had passed), because the elements of supply, demand and rarity were all in place.

6. Thou shalt accurately calculate value. Everybody loves a great math formula, especially when it can be used to offer nice, predictable results for both a buyer and a seller. Goldmine is no exception, and its standby for calculating values based on condition has long been VG+ = 50 percent NM, and VG = 25 percent of NM. But our research has shown that the condition only yields accurate pricing results when you’re working with records valued at $60 or less. Once a record’s NM value climbs above that mark, the answers from the math are out of sync with the actual value. A record may be in ridiculously scarce supply in NM condition, but plentiful supply in VG+ and downright common in VG condition. That means the while the NM record is still deserving of its premium price, the VG+ or VG-condition prices that would be calculated following that equation are out of whack with the market conditions.

value condition conversion chart

7. Thou shalt do one's homework. Trying to sell a record but not getting the price you seek? Get a second, third or more opinion on the record in question. Has your record gotten a better grade than it deserves? Is it a first pressing? Or is it a reissue or a counterfeit? Are similar-condition copies selling for wildly different amounts on eBay or with other dealers? You may not like the answers you find, but they will give you a better picture of what you have, what it’s worth and how in-demand it is.

If you feel a dealer is offering an unfair price, make a counter offer. If the dealer shows no interest in negotiating, come right out and ask how he or she arrived at the price offered. Perhaps you stopped by a local antiques shop, where the owner has a few crates of records amid rooms full of glass, furniture and jewelry, instead of heading to a record shop in a nearby town. Maybe that particular dealer specializes in R&B and Northern Soul 45s, and you’ve brought in a treasure trove of Blue Note jazz LPs and early blues 78s. Or, you could have a record that, although rare in NM condition, is ridiculously plentiful in VG+ condition — and you only have a VG+ condition record.

Keep in mind that reputable dealers offer what they feel are fair prices, based on the costs and risks they assume for the items they acquire. A dealer couldn’t stay in business very long if he paid the full resale price to acquire his merchandise. It’s up to you to accept (or reject) the offer, negotiate a better price or seek out another buyer who is willing to pay what you ask.

8. Thou shalt not mistake a guide with a holy writ. Price guides are just that: guides. The values that price guide publishers provide are based on myriad factors, including market trends, artist demand and past sales results, all of which can and do change. Our listings offer an excellent way to help you identify which pressings you have, how common they are and how their value stacks up in the collecting market. This information is helpful when you assemble an inventory of your collection to ensure you’ve got adequate insurance coverage — and to make sure your non-collector heirs don’t sell off your rare Northern Soul 45s for a nickel apiece at a tag sale! But a price guide listing, an expert’s appraisal or one isolated auction result is not to be mistaken as a guarantee of a return on investment for a seller parting with a particular record. The real-world sale price can vary widely from the so-called value market value. In simple terms, it comes back to how badly you want to sell the record, and how badly the buyer wants to own it.

9. Thou shalt weigh external trends as a part of an item's value. The handsome prices you expect to reap as a seller — or the bargains you hope to find as a buyer — can fluctuate greatly based on a variety of factors beyond the condition or rarity of the item for sale. For instance, when an artist dies, you can almost always expect to see a bump — deserved or otherwise — in prices paid for records or memorabilia for that artist. Whether those prices stand up beyond the early stages of grieving — when fans seek out tangible reminders of the artist for whom they are in mourning and sellers are quick to capitalize on that grief with to-the-highest-bidder prices — is something that needs to be studied over a longer period of time and factored in to pricing estimates. When Michael Jackson died, common copies of the "Thriller" album were bringing ridiculously high prices via online auctions, simply because those sellers were in the right place at the right time with the right market demand. The bubble burst quickly, and the market soon returned to prices that were more focused on condition, rarity and demand than simple emotion. But it still skewed expected values.

Since The Great Recession’s arrival, we’ve noticed an increase in online sellers putting items up for auction and citing the need to part with treasured items in their collections to generate money. In many cases, the prices realized were below what ordinarily would be the expected value. While some sellers opted to decline offers they felt were too low, many others took whatever prices they could get, because they needed to convert their collectibles into cash. This has had the ripple effect of subsequent buyers expecting (and offering) lower prices, and subsequent collectors accepting those lower prices.

10. Thou shalt collect what thou doth love and canst afford. Few of us enjoy bottomless wealth and complete financial security. Please don’t raid your 401(k) account to buy a too-good-to-be-true rarity on eBay under the guise that it is an “investment.” Enjoy the thrill of the chase within your budget, seek out those fabulous finds, buy the best that you can afford and always take time to appreciate what you have, from super-cool sleeves and covers to great-sounding music. GM