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Condition, we are often told, is everything. And it is true. Condition is what separates a pristine disc from a scratched-to-death one; condition is how we determine whether a record is worth $1,000 or $1.

But determining condition —“grading,” as it is known — is not an exact science. No matter how thoroughly you inspect a record, and no matter how carefully you listen to one, the flaws that you detect might be invisible to someone else; and the flaws you overlook might be poison to another. With the best will in the world, and the most analytical approach to the subject, the stated condition of any record being sold is at best a guide, and at worst, subjective.

Yet it is also the most important detail in any description of a record, or indeed, anything else that is being purchased, unseen, from a stranger — and, alongside shipping costs and packaging, the one most likely to lead to disappointment or worse.

What, after all, is the point of purchasing a sealed LP if the seller is going to mail it taped inside a supermarket plastic bag? Especially if you’ve already paid a sizable premium over the actual mailing cost to cover “packaging” charges?

Don’t shrug; it happens. True, your sealed album will probably still be sealed. But it might also be bent, or even broken. Always check a seller’s feedback, and always check the terms of sale, too. You won’t rule out every potential problem, but at least you’ll know if anyone else has run into difficulties.

Back to grading. There are eight basic points on the Goldmine grading scale—Mint (M), Near Mint (NM), Very Good Plus (VG+), Very Good (VG), Good Plus (G+), Good (G), Fair (F) and Poor (P). Some dealers may insert their own intermediary grades — Near Mint Minus (NM-), for example, or Very Good Double Plus (VG++) — echoing the similar system that has operated in numismatics for many years; but these definitions vary from seller to seller.

Years ago, a fellow collector told me that, when buying a record by mail, “I read the description, I look at the grade, and I always assume the worst.” Which doesn’t say much for her faith in human nature, but it does enable he to avoid disappointment. Particularly if a record is described as being in Mint condition.

A record grading Mint should be absolutely perfect in every regard. The record has certainly never been played, and could (some collectors say should, but please see the PS at the end of this article) still be sealed in its original shrinkwrapping. To these enthusiasts, the very act of opening (or, even worse, removing) the shrinkwrap immediately reduces a record to Near Mint, although even that is no guarantee of a pristine piece of plastic emerging into the daylight.

Several years ago, a record store-owning correspondent to Goldmine’s “Spin Cycle” vinyl column wrote, “We cringe every time someone opens certain records in the store. I have seen VG pressings come out of a brand new Adele 21 LP. Mumford and Sons was not any better. These pressings are blatantly mishandled during manufacturing.

“We have seen multiple fingernail scratches, scuffs that run along all tracks; you name it I have seen it. Being a big collector of '60s to '90s records, I buy a lot of sealed original records from conventions where I set up. I have never opened a sealed [vintage] record that looked as bad as these new pressings do.”

New releases, however, are not the only albums that refuse to adhere to the definitions of “new.” Every buyer, no matter their age, can recall at least one occasion when they rushed home with a brand new purchase, only to find it warped or skipping, or missing the lyric sheet, or possessed of any of many other failings. And if they’re in that state on the day they were unloaded from the distributor’s truck, imagine all that could have happened to an album sitting still-sealed in a warehouse or forgotten in a box for upwards of thirty years!

“Mint” is the ultimate caveat emptor… Buyer Beware!

Near Mint , then, is the grade that many dealers prefer to use, suggesting a record that is almost perfect. It is also the highest grade listed in all of the Goldmine price guides, with the understanding that any record that does exceed this standard will be worth significantly more than its stated value.

What can you expect from a Near Mint record? Near-perfection. It may possess the odd minor defect — a tiny (read all-but-invisible) trace of ring wear to the cover, the odd stray fingerprint or, around the spindle hole in the center of the record, a few silvery lines.

What there should not be are creases, folds, tears, splits, scratches, scribbles, dings or clicks. There will be no cut-out hole (denoting that a record was once sold at a discount); there will be no overt indiction whatsoever that this is anything but a new record that somebody opened before you received it.

The next grade is Very Good Plus (VG+). Generally valued at around 50% of the Near Mint value, the record will clearly have been played and otherwise handled by a previous owner, but it will also have been very well looked after. There may be some visible flaws — scuffs or surface scratches that cannot be felt with a fingertip, but these will not be audible.

A slight warp may be present, but again, it will not affect the music. There will be some wear to the label, and more of those silvery lines, but the spindle hole itself will not appear misshapen from repeated plays. The sleeve may show some wear, but nothing to get excited about, while this is also the highest level at which a cut-out should be graded, no matter how pristine the rest of the package might be. Think of it as Near Mint with a few problems.

Famously, there are several records, particularly in the world of 78s, for which VG+ is the only condition that has ever been seen — Tommy Johnson’s “Alcohol and Jake Blues” (Paramount 12950), for example.

But there are far more recent examples than that where, although exceptions may exist, they do so in very small quantities. The Raspberries’ self-titled 1972 debut album with its scratch and sniff sticker (something approximating raspberries, naturally) unscratched, is one example; another would be a copy of Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box album, released in 1979 in a worldwide limited edition of 60,000 (of which 50,000 were intended for the domestic U.K. market).

Unlike the familiar two disc U.S. pressing, Second Edition, this version featured three twelve-inch, 45rpm, singles encased, indeed, in a pristine silver-colored circular metal box.

At least, it was pristine when it was issued. Almost 40 years later, finding a copy that has not at least begun the disfiguring oxidization process is akin to hunting down any of the hobby’s other greatest rarities, while most now look like they’ve finished the process, and the only thing holding the tin together is the rust.

True, many collectors now believe the box was intended to rust, basing their suspicions on the later CD release of The Complete Bill Evans on Verve. That, too, was released in a metal box, with its inevitable oxidation publicized as one of its selling points! But Metal Box remains a collectible item, though. Even with more than half its surface covered in crumbly brown yuk, it remains valued in the region of $200. (Metal Box was reissued in 2016, this time in a square box. It is too soon, at the time of writing, to know whether this box, too, will rust itself into a state of disgrace.)

In both of these instances, you will notice, it is the packaging, as opposed to the record(s) that decree the album’s overall condition and, for that reason, many responsible sellers choose to grade record and sleeve separately. Nevertheless, a NM record in a VG+ sleeve is exactly what it says. Seriously flawed. But there’s still worse to come. How about a VG record in a VG sleeve? 

We will look at what that (and more) entails next time.

 PS: I say "some collectors" think a mint album should still be in shrink-wrap, because it proves it's never been played. But that only applies if you buy records intending to resell them at mint prices later, or if you want to be assured that a record has not been opened - say you're buying one online, the dealer is justified in calling it mint if it's still in many shrink-wrap.

As for shrinkwrap warping the album - it's not really proven either way. I've bought plenty of albums in shrink-wrap, some dating back to the 60s and 70s, and never found a warped one. But I've also picked up a few new releases, also in shrink-wrap, and they're warped. The question is, are the two things… the shrinkwrap and the warp… related? Or did the record just get left near a heat source?

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