By Benjamin Nobel, September 26, 2018
Off the bat, the very first thing I would like to state is that I am a fan of CGC, a customer of CGC, and I would not hesitate to recommend CGC to others. And, I believe that everybody makes mistakes — we are all only human, after all! Labeling mistakes are bound to happen. And mistakes will happen at any grading company. Even epic ones, like mis-labeling a Star Wars #1 reprint as the rare 35¢ cover price variant (yep, that will be one of the six examples; read on…).
Ever since CGC introduced the online form method of order entry by customers, it feels to me like I’ve been seeing more and more labeling blunders. Have you noticed this too? And to my way of thinking, an increase in labeling errors makes a whole lot of sense to me under this new system. Because with the old way, when submissions came in on paper, how did those books get entered into the computers at CGC? Well, while I have no first-hand knowledge of the detailed inner workings at CGC, I have to imagine that in those days of only paper submissions, a person at CGC needed to themselves enter each book into the computer, as the order was verified, book by book. How else would those books have gotten off the paper and into the computers?
Picture yourself doing the following task: you are going through a stack of raw books one at a time, with the information for each book listed out on a paper next to you, and you are typing each one of those books into a computer spreadsheet as you go through the stack — and one of the columns in the spreadsheet is the variant designation for the book. Because you are doing that data entry, you are probably more inclined to be checking for correctness as you type the books in, ensuring that if a variant is mentioned on the paper, that it matches up to the book before your fingers type it in…
But times have changed with the advent of the online submission system: now, the customer enters everything into the computer… So by the time the submission arrives at CGC, the computer already has all the information for each book as CGC’s staff is unpacking the order… that is, the computer has the information that the customer entered. And while I have no first-hand knowledge of the inner workings and steps of the internal process at CGC, I imagine that this new method is an absolutely huge time-saver, allowing for a much more efficient order acceptance process where instead of entering everything, they now only need to check everything that the customer already entered themselves.
Greater efficiency in the CGC submission process brings good for all of us — CGC presumably saves many man-hours and therefore costs, and in theory those incremental savings can be passed along to customers in the form of better rates, better speed, or both. But is some amount of accuracy lost in the trade-off?
In the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the authors show just how powerful the concept of the “default option” really is — presented with a default, i.e. something that happens if we take no action, we humans are very likely to just go with that default. Thinking about this concept as applied to CGC’s new online entry system, what I believe we’re witnessing as collectors, is that when a customer enters their comic as a variant in error, it is now much more likely that it will remain in the computers there at CGC as that variant, in error, all the way through to arriving at your doorstep: because once the customer has entered the variant information, it appears that what the customer entered is now the default option — i.e. for an error to be corrected later, CGC staff would have to catch the mistake and fix it sometime during the rest of the process.
Suppose for sake of illustrative example, that someone owns one of these:
As the customer, how would we enter that comic into the online form? First, we’d type in the Title: Star Wars. Next, we’d select the Publisher: Marvel Comics. For the Issue #, we’d type 1. Then the Issue Date: 7/77. Now comes the crux of what this post is about: the Variant field. A drop-down appears, and the customer may optionally select a choice from a drop-down list. As the mouse hovers up and down, the choice selected is highlighted in gray. Below is a screenshot of what this looks like:
It is extremely easy to select the wrong choice by mistake. Hover your mouse ever so slightly in the wrong direction, and you can select the wrong variant.
Erroneous selections by customers can in turn lead to labeling blunders where the book leaves CGC with the label erroneously identifying the comic as the wrong variant. In this post I will review six such observed mistakes as applied to various cover price variants, and I will discuss what we can all learn from these mistakes.
What Can We Learn From These Mistakes?
Before I present the six example CGC labeling blunders, I want to quickly address the “what can we learn from this” question — because observing the blunders is one thing, learning something from observing them is much better. First off, I want to share with you that in the process of researching this post, I learned something important when I contacted CGC: I learned about CGC’s policy regarding correcting labeling mistakes. I hadn’t really thought about their error correction “policy” very much before this. I sent them pictures and eBay links of some of the books you’ll see later, and what I learned in the process is that CGC will not correct this type of mistake if a third party (like you or me) sends them an eBay link.
Even if those eBay photos clearly show the certification numbers and clearly show the features of the comics that prove they are not in fact the variants listed on the labels, their current policy (as of this date) is to change the books only after being in contact with the rightful owners. At first, the CGC representative I corresponded with thought perhaps I was the owner of the initial book I had mentioned, and asked me for a photograph of the book along with something showing today’s date — like a newspaper — in the photograph. Clearly, their stance is that they need to be able to trust the photo before they take any action; and there are understandable reasons for this stance.
So one thing I learned, is that — as of today — CGC’s error correction policy makes it highly likely that erroneously labeled books will stay erroneously labeled. They will apparently only make a correction at the request of the owner of the book, whereas a third party like you or me pointing out an error does not seem to trigger any kind of “recall” process nor review of any internal photographs stored at the time of grading (which tells me that perhaps they do not currently take such photographs internally).
And so one thing CGC may want to learn from this, and may want to consider doing differently to “react” to error reports and be able to correct them, is to implement a process where they do snap a picture of each slab and store that picture internally for future reference. Then, if a third party like you or me points out a mistake on a given certification number seen on the marketplace, CGC would be able to reference their own internal photograph and examine that reference photo to verify the mistake. Adding such a reference-photo-step to their internal processes would mean they would not need to rely on the accuracy of third party photos uploaded to eBay by sellers; the “hurdle” to correcting an error would therefore be dramatically lowered, making it more likely that errors such as the ones you’ll see later actually get corrected. Leaving errors uncorrected can produce nasty marketplace results — just wait until you see what the mis-labeled Star Wars #1 sold for at auction… I’ll show you that in a moment.
Another thing CGC may want to consider doing differently, which could prevent this type of labeling error from occurring to begin with, is to change the internal process followed when the customer has entered a variant designation into the online form. For example, one possibility is to distrust the customer by default and literally prompt CGC grading staff to perform manual entry of the variant designation — I picture the computer system used internally by CGC staff refusing to “continue” until each book that was denoted by the customer as a variant is reviewed and manually categorized by CGC grading staff; and to ensure this review by the graders is not biased to any default, the staff member could be prompted to make their own choice without seeing what the customer entered in advance (knowing only that the customer denoted it as “a” variant but not knowing which variant — leaving it up to the CGC grading staff to review the book and choose the proper variant designation, and then once they have made their choice they could next be shown whether that choice matched what the customer entered).
What can we learn as collectors (and as participants in the online marketplaces)?
For one, if we spot a book we believe might be mis-labeled as a variant, and we enter that book’s certification number into CGC’s website, then unless the owner has contacted CGC to have it corrected, we can expect the bogus variant designation will show up online too — meaning CGC’s website will appear to “corroborate” the erroneous variant designation, to any market participant researching the book they are considering.
Let me pause on this point for a moment, because it is important. CGC is trusted as an “authority” and if the label says a comic is a variant — and the online lookup “corroborates” that it is a variant — but a collector’s own background knowledge tells them the book inside the slab is not that variant, then a collector who suspects a labeling error is going to be faced with an internal question: do I believe myself and my own background knowledge, or, does CGC know something I don’t?
“Might CGC know something I don’t?”
That’s a critical question… And our certainty of the answer depends on the situation. For example, let’s think through Type 1A Canadian Price Variants of the 1980’s and Type 1A Australian Price Variants of the 1990’s. Whether we are looking at a direct edition copy of a given issue, a regular newsstand copy of that same issue, or a Type 1A price variant newsstand copy of that same issue, we know in advance that by definition, all three of those types are identical on the inside. Said differently, the only information that tells the types apart is already on the outside. We need not crack a slab to know what we are looking at! We need only look at the outside of the comic!
With these thoughts in mind, let’s proceed to look at the “most epic” of the six blunders I will share with you…
Blunder #1: Star Wars #1 35¢ Variant
In the beginning of this post, we considered the hypothetical question of what we’d enter into CGC’s online submission form if we were submitting one of these:
So first and foremost: What are these? One go-to resource we can reference is the Overstreet guide. Overstreet lists Star Wars #1 as follows:
As you can see above, there is the regular 30¢ cover price type (valued at $215 in 9.2), the 35¢ cover price type (the Type 1 price variant; valued at $11,000 in 9.2), and then the various reprint types each valued at just $70 in 9.2.
To help us identify the types, Overtreet notes that the 35¢ variant has “Price in square w/UPC code” and further goes on to say: “NOTE: the rare 35¢ edition has the cover price in a square box, and the UPC box in the lower left hand corner has the UPC code lines running through it.”
Why would Overstreet need to “spell out” that the UPC code has lines running through it? Shouldn’t that be obvious? Well, as it turns out, there also exists a 35¢ cover priced REPRINT where the UPC code box is “blank”/empty (just a white rectangle; no lines running through it). Overstreet is “spelling it out” to help collectors avoid a big blunder: buying a reprint by accident, thinking it is a first print copy.
And then for the Reprint entry, Overstreet says, “has “reprint” in upper lefthand corner of cover or on inside or price and number inside a diamond with no date or UPC on cover; 30¢ and 35¢ issues published.”
So by the above, a reprint copy can say REPRINT in the upper left-hand corner of the cover, or in the indicia inside. And clearly, from the above descriptions, Overstreet is teaching us that if there is a 35¢ price but that price is inside a diamond shape, the book we’re looking at is a reprint. Another resource, MyComicShop, catalogs/lists the various types out there for Star Wars #1 like so:
So at MyComicShop, per the above, they have cataloged four different types: two first print types (30¢ and 35¢ cover prices) and two reprint types (“diamond” reprint with blank UPC and newsstand type with UPC). Note that the description on the diamond entry says “cover or indicia” indicating that the REPRINT designation is either shown on the cover itself for some copies, or, in the indicia for others.
In the marketplace, we sometimes see CGC-graded copies of the “diamond” reprints, where CGC denotes them as “REPRINT” on the label:
Note how the above example copy says Reprint at the upper left of the cover. And indeed, if we look inside other diamond copies for a Reprint indication in the indicia page, we’d see the indicia says this:
But once encapsulated, the example indicia page above would be out of view — one would have to crack the slab to see it. Suppose CGC were to encapsulate one of these reprints and label it — in error — as “35¢ Price Variant”? Would market participants “trust” their own background knowledge and conclude they are looking at a mis-labeled reprint copy? Or, would they place some odds — some non-zero chance — that CGC knows something we don’t, and the book inside is a actually special case first printing that nobody has yet discovered/documented?
We actually got to find out the answer to that “trust” question… because this (below) recently came onto the market (on eBay):
If you are reading this post around the time I wrote it (in September of 2018) then you can still access the eBay listing at the following hyperlink (note: you may see a message like the below — clicking the “View Original Listing” will take you to the original item): https://www.ebay.com/itm/283037236937
And this is the price it fetched at auction:
Wow: as you can see, the book fetched multiples of what a CGC 9.6 first print 30¢ copy would normally go for — below are a couple of recent example sales of 30¢ copies:
Let’s examine the listing description of the “35¢ variant” copy that went for $1,075 at auction:
Notice how the seller points the finger of responsibility at CGC and basically says “they are the experts, not me.” Would they not have placed REPRINT on the label if it was a reprint, the seller asks? And by suggesting that, a small sliver if doubt is placed… because we don’t know what we can’t see and we can’t see the indicia page of a slabbed book… so is it possible this copy doesn’t say reprint inside? Is it possible CGC knows something we don’t? After all, their certification lookup tool “corroborates” the variant designation (shown below). [And that small doubt is likely what caused the copy to be bid to an insane price level.]
It would obviously be better if CGC corrected the lookup above so that any future lookup did not falsely corroborate the book as being the 35¢ variant. I asked them to correct it, but alas, by CGC’s current policy, they will not correct the above unless the winner of the book contacts them. If the winner does contact them, they assured me they will be more than happy to make the correction. Hopefully any future bidder/buyer (should the book be listed for sale in the future) will google the certification number — #1269363002 — and find this post as a “cautionary tale.”
I dug deeper into eBay’s sold listings and discovered that this is not the first time this particular book has been sold! Does the below picture taken from an earlier listing look familiar? It is indeed the identical serial number atop the slab, previously listed by a different seller:
And instead of pointing to CGC as the “authority” and suggesting the label must be accurate, this seller wrote as follows, in their listing description:
So the prior seller of the book came right out and said “we believe this copy is a reprint…” And here’s how that prior seller had priced the book on a buy-it-now:
It is clear to me that what we have here is an epic CGC labeling blunder involving the #1 most highly valued bronze age comic book, inflating the census count of 35¢ variants on record in 9.6, and causing major market confusion as evidenced by the auction bidding taking the book to $1,075. Because the indicia page is buried inside the slab, it is likely that some market participants assigned non-zero odds to the notion that this particular copy was, in a ground-breaking discovery, not actually a reprint; but in reality this was a labeling mistake, pure and simple. A blunder… and quite possibly a blunder that originated with the submitter selecting the wrong variant from the drop-down list by accident.
The blunder draws attention to how the new online submission system may have made a major change to the “default” — i.e. the variant information associated with any books that are submitted through the online system now originates with the customer. The default action of “doing nothing” (leaving the designation alone) can now result in “false positives” where books are leaving CGC labeled erroneously as variants that they are not. The Star Wars blunder highlights how there is room for improvement in how the customer-entered online submission information is later error-checked at CGC before the book leaves the building. The blunder also highlights how the current policy of requiring the book owner be involved in the error correction makes any error correction “after the fact” extremely difficult; surely there is room for improvement in how CGC reacts to reports of such labeling errors in the future, perhaps by adding a step in the internal process to photo-document each slab before it leaves the building, thus allowing for later internal photo lookup by certification number and examination of that trusted internal photo to check for labeling errors at a later date.
Blunder #2: Amazing Spider-Man #654, “Sensational Spider-Man” Newsstand Edition
Newsstand copies of Amazing Spider-Man #654 — a key issue where Flash Thompson becomes Venom — have a really cool “variant-worthy quirk” (i.e. a feature which is remarkable enough in CGC’s eyes that it causes CGC to “break out” the newsstand copies as their own census variant, something they do not normally do [normally direct edition and newsstand copies are “lumped together”]): They were distributed as “Sensational Spider-Man”:
Note in the picture above how the word “Newsstand” appears to the left of the UPC code, and the words “Sensational Spider-Man” appear to the right: this tells us we are looking at a newsstand copy of issue #654. If we were looking at one of the prevalent direct editions instead, then we’d see the words “Direct Edition” aside the UPC code instead, like this:
Anybody can tell a newsstand copy apart from a direct edition in this manner; no examination of the interior of issue #654 is necessary.
While ASM #654 newsstand copies are “variant-worthy” due to the UPC codes that mis-identify the comic as a different title than it actually is, another “variant-worthy” attribute that we sometimes see with newsstand comics, one which also causes CGC to “break out” newsstand comics distinctly from their direct edition counter-parts, is when the newsstand edition is a cover price variant of the issue number — and many Amazing Spider-Man newsstand comics in the 500’s and 600’s carry a $1.00 higher cover cover price, such as $3.99 for the newsstand edition while their prevalent direct edition counter-parts carry a $2.99 cover price. [Read more about the dramatically-more-rare $3.99 cover price variants here; one example key $3.99 cover price variant is Amazing Spider-Man #607]
For issue #654, both the direct edition copies and the newsstand copies carry a $3.99 cover price. So issue #654 is not one of the newsstand comics that falls under that cover-price-variant category. But when CGC created the newsstand census entry for this issue they accidentally named it “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” instead of just “Newsstand Edition.” So by the census, a cover price variant record existed! This mistake may have led submitters of direct editions to first look at the price tag on their copy, see $3.99, and reach the false conclusion that their copy was a newsstand copy. Oops!
I’m happy to report that CGC has now corrected the census entry name itself for issue #654, even though they would not correct the individual examples I gave them (because by their current policy the owner of the books themselves would need to request the corrections).
Here are two mis-labeled examples I’ve come across to date; as you can see, the CGC slabs read “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” but inside the slab is just a plain old prevalent direct edition! And we do not need to see the interior of the comic to know for certain that we’re looking at a direct edition, because the interior of newsstand copies is 100% identical to the interior of direct edition copies; thus, from the outside of the slab we can see the defining feature, that UPC code box, which tells us when we’re looking at a real newsstand copy. In this way, we know for certain that the following copies of issue #654 have been mis-labeled:
Certification #0341630004 (https://www.ebay.com/itm/401558181947):
A certification look-up still erroneously lists the above copy as the variant, although as you can see, CGC has changed the variant name from “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” to “Newsstand Edition” (the “$3.99” part was removed) and the entry now includes a note about the Spectacular Spider-Man quirk in the Key Comments:
Certification #1993043003 (https://www.ebay.com/itm/123381315710) is another example of a plain old direct edition labeled as “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” and still comes up in a certification lookup as a newsstand copy, in error:
Blunder #3: Transformers #1
Transformers #1 is one of the “mega-keys” that fell within Marvel’s 1980’s cover price variant window on the newsstand (ranking #6 in the 2018 guide) — during the window, instead of one batch of newsstand copies carrying both US and Canadian prices, Marvel printed two distinct newsstand batches each with their own cover price. All three types — the two newsstand types plus the prevalent direct edition type — were published in the USA on the same equipment and at the same time (so all are 1st print copies) and all types are fully 100% identical on the inside. The higher cover price batch is “broken out” by CGC as its own census variant.
Arguably, the name CGC chose when breaking out these Type 1A cover price variants is itself a blunder… There is no special name ascribed by the publisher, so CGC needed to come up with one; at their own choosing, CGC picked the name “Canadian Edition” which is arguably a blunder because it conflates these Type 1A price variants published in the USA, with the actual Canadian Editions of the 1940’s/1950’s. Read more on the topic of “what should we call these 1980’s newsstand-exclusive price variants” in this separate post.
But the census name itself is not the blunder in question with this example. The blunder in this example has to do with the cover price of the variant. Imagine if a 30¢ first print copy of Star Wars #1 was given a “35¢ price variant” label — that’s essentially what happened here, with this Transformers #1 example.
An easy mistake to make with these Canadian Price Variant comics, is to assume that newsstand comics with a 75¢ cover price are the variants… after all, “75¢ variant” is a highly common phrase you’ll hear with this class of variants. But the cover price actually varies from issue to issue and for Transformers #1, the 75¢ copies are actually the “regular” cover price copies, while the $1.00 copies are the variants. Here is an example variant below:
Having seen the variant above, with its $1.00 cover price, you will recognize that the 75¢ cover price copy within the slab pictured below is not the variant… it is just a regular newsstand copy.
Certification #1276709017 (https://www.ebay.com/itm/352452127491):
Blunder #4: Amazing Spider-Man #276
You might notice that the Transformers #1 slab from the prior example has no indication anywhere on the CGC label of what the variant cover price is supposed to be… The slab says “Canadian Edition” but doesn’t give any inkling of a definition for what that means to a collector. But if you look at the very bottom of the certification lookup picture above, you’ll see that it says “$1.00 Cover Price.” This last line is now there because a good incremental improvement to CGC’s labeling was made recently, whereby CGC now places the variant cover price on the right-hand side of the label.
For comics where the variant cover price is not 75¢, this new labeling improvement should in theory help with identification (and error-catching) — because if a CGC staff member is looking at a slab and sees, say, 95¢ Cover Price on the label note, but the book inside the slab carries a 75¢ cover price, they will be more likely to realize that something is amiss. But unfortunately the below copy slipped through the cracks anyway!
Certification #1272465008 (https://www.ebay.com/itm/223135444963):
Blunder #5: Secret Wars #8
A mistake in which newsstand type you are looking at is one thing; but for a direct edition to pass as the newsstand price variant is a tough error to understand any CGC grader making “on their own.” Anyone should be able to tell a 1980’s direct edition comic from its newsstand brethren at a glance, even from a great distance (just spot that Spidey-head logo in place of the bar code and you know you’re looking at a direct edition). Yet somehow the below direct edition Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #8 was labeled “Canadian Edition” which I can only imagine originated with erroneous customer-entered information and then “slipped through” CGC without being noticed.
Certification #1245151020 (https://www.ebay.com/itm/192664685427):
Fortunately, the owner of the above copy appears to have contacted CGC, because the certification lookup tool itself no longer denotes the book as the variant.
Blunder #6: Amazing Spider-Man #361
There are newsstand-exclusive Type 1A variants from the 1990’s too! Marvel experimented with Australian newsstand distribution for a window of time, and just like the 1980’s newsstand price variants these Australian price variant copies are 100% identical on the inside to the rest of the print run. For Amazing Spider-Man #361, the variant carries a cover price of $1.80 AUS (read more about these and see pictures here). The cover month differs as well, and CGC catalogs the variants by the cover month instead of the indicia month.
Similar to the Secret Wars #8 example, you will find that the below “Australian Edition” labeled slab contains a plain old direct edition inside instead of the newsstand cover price variant! Can you picture a CGC grader making this error if they were the one choosing the variant designation, with no default option selected? I can’t imagine that; no way. I can only imagine this kind of error occurring because the customer entered it as “Australian Edition” and then the error went unnoticed as the book proceeded through the grading process at CGC all the way through to leaving the building.
Certification #1266443016 (https://www.ebay.com/itm/173265969239):
This one too may have been corrected — a certification lookup now fails, and, the eBay link indicates the original seller ended the item due to an error in the listing.
Circling Back: What We Can Learn
What can we learn (and what can CGC learn) from these example labeling blunders? Earlier, I described two suggestions for things CGC can consider as improvements to their internal process — one being an idea to counteract how customer-entered variant information changes the default versus the old paper method by forcing the grader to make their own selection; another idea being a way CGC could improve its “after-the-fact” error correction capability by snapping in-house reference photos which could be referred to in the event of error reports by a third party.
As for us as collectors, I think we have learned:
- We cannot go by the labels alone; if we are in the market for a variant, we must be able to see the book in a photograph and verify for ourselves that it is indeed the variant we seek.
- We cannot expect that a mis-labeled book will see a correction later to the online certification lookup tool; CGC’s policy today demands involvement by the owner of the book before such a correction is made. This means mis-labeled books may stay mislabeled indefinitely.
- Census data therefore isn’t always going to be 100% accurate; these uncorrected books will linger there on census until/unless a future owner puts in for a correction; e.g. there are not three Star Wars #1 35¢ variants on record in the top 9.6 grade today… because the “false variant” pictured earlier is still counted toward that total.
- We can be 100% certain in spotting newsstand versus direct edition labeling errors, since the interiors of each of the books are already known to be identical. But when a labeling error raises the question of what might be inside the apparently-mislabeled slabbed copy (like in the Star Wars example), a small sliver of doubt — the thought of “what might CGC know that I don’t know” — can cause bidders to pay absurd prices, inflicting real monetary damage on the unlucky winners.
- Realization of absurd market prices may create an incentive for bad behavior — a bad actor could purposefully make an “error” on the online submission form and hope it slips through.
- Because the online submission form has “changed the default”, we collectors should not be surprised if we see a continuation of labeling errors or even an uptick in labeling blunders.
- Based on this expectation for continued errors or even an uptick in errors, CGC may want to consider taking one or more steps to “adapt” their process to the reality of what the customer-entered “new default” means for the likelihood of continued errors; I gave two suggestions earlier which I believe would help.
- We are all only human. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, so we should forgive CGC the occasional labeling blunder; but we should also expect their organization would strive to be the best it can be, which means reacting to the new online-submission-form-reality with improved processes for error checking and correction.