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Tips On How To Buy A Collectible Record

Record collecting would be simpler if stores stocked mint copies with certificates of authenticity and allowed full refunds within one year of purchase. But since that's not the case, here's how you can reduce your risks when hunting for collectible records.

By Marc Grobman

Record collecting would be simpler if stores stocked mint copies of collectible records with certificates of authenticity and allowed full refunds within one year of purchase. But since that’s not the case, we’ll discuss here how you can reduce your risks on your collectible record hunting trips.

Let’s start with what to bring on your safari to a record show, record store, or a visit to someone who responded to your “wanted to buy” ad in the local paper, supermarket bulletin board or Goldmine and Discoveries magazine ad.

First, make sure you can bring back the records with you in the same trip. Many collectors have stories of how they made a handshake agreement to return later to pay for records and pick them up, only to find the seller had changed his or her mind or sold them to someone else.

Bring enough money with you, in several denominations, so making change won’t be a problem. If it’s a quantity deal, bring boxes or crates so the records won’t slide all over your vehicle on your return trip. If you’re buying 78s, pack cardboard protectors and cushioning so they don’t develop cracks on the way back.

Bring a portable record player with you to find out if you like the music on records you don’t know. While a trained eye can spot defects, watching the record spin on a turntable is the easiest way to see if it was pressed off-center; you’ll see the tonearm move slightly inward and outward, possibly distorting the sound. Up-and-down tonearm movement will also highlight warps your eye might miss.

Take a want list with you that not only documents desired records, but also hard-to-remember details from your research. For example, it could identify the record number cut-offs of when first-pressing King or Atlantic label LPs should be black, or whether a Bluebird 78 you want should be on the buff or staff-style label. If you’re looking for a 45 of Smokey Joe’s “Signifying Monkey,” it could remind you that the original 1955 release was on Sun #228, not Sun #393, its 1964 re-release.

At your destination, look at an LP or EP and make sure the record label number matches the one on the cover. A record often ends up in the wrong record jacket, proving that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Scan the LP record cover to make sure it doesn’t have those dreaded words, “electronically enhanced for stereo” or the abbreviation “(e)” after the record number, which also admits that criminal act. Watch out also for record numbers with an “RE” suffix, for “reissue.”

With 45s, examine the dead wax between the end of the grooves and the label to see if the matrix numbers match those on the label. On rockabilly 45s, watch out for “Issued in 1975” scratched in the dead wax, a hallmark of many quality 30-year-old reproductions.

Hold the record by the edges and move one side slightly toward you and then away, back and forth so the light from different angles can highlight groove imperfections. Differences in the reflected light may indicate a warp or heat damage. Scrutinize the outer edge to see if there’s a barely visible 1/8-inch edge crack.

If you see a scratch, move the tender underside of your little finger across it. If you can feel it, the record may skip. It you can’t, skipping is less likely.

If a 45’s grooves appear exceptionally clean but you see label wear or lots of fine scratches in the dead wax, the record may have been polished, a procedure where someone buffs away scratches from the groove area of a well-used record. The result: a record that looks great but may play with unexpectedly loud hiss.

Hold the record sideways to check for warps. Peek inside picture sleeves and see if light comes through any edges, revealing a split.

Is the sealed album you’re looking at a reseal? Look for cover wear. Other giveaways: I’ve found drill holes in the cover underneath unpierced shrink wrap and sealed LPs with writing or dirt on the covers. If the LP was issued in the 1950s or early 1960s, you’ll want to feel the record inside. If it feels thin and flexible, it might be a later pressing.

I once found a sealed copy of Stevie Wonder’s first album at a great price at a record show. I suspected it was not a first-pressing, but, understandably, the dealer wouldn’t break the seal. I finally told him that if he broke the seal and the record was a first pressing and in fine shape, I’d buy it for $15 over his asking price. If not, I’d owe him nothing. He agreed, broke the seal, and to our mutual disappointment, I owed him nothing.

Gary Hein, a Beatles specialist for almost 30 years who operates the Web site, noted that unsealed albums that still have the shrink wrap intact will often be slightly darker near the cover opening, where the plastic has pulled back just enough to allow dust or tobacco smoke to stain the cover. So, if a sealed LP shows “tanning” by the opening, said Hein, the album probably was unsealed and later resealed.

Talking with other collectors can help, even if your collecting interests have little in common. Steve Worowski, who in pre-Internet days conducted mail auctions and now sells on the Internet as Vushivinyl, recalled that around 1988 Japanese dealer Katsushi Ikeda taught him about deep- groove albums.

Ikeda told Worowski about the deep groove — a circular depression about a half-inch inward from the edge of the jazz-oriented Blue Note record label — to help him identify its first pressings. “But I later realized I could use that to identify earlier pressings on some other labels,” Worowski says, for example, “first pressings of early 1960s and earlier RCA LPs should have deep-groove labels.”

The former standup comedian has been grateful for that advice ever since. He concluded, with a grin, “That’s how I became a millionaire through the used record business!”