Collectibles markets are surging, and as old comics get more expensive, collectors and dealers turn to third-party services to ensure authenticity and grade. The phenomenon has led to an odd crimp in the labor market - grading services and high-end auction houses are desperate to hire graders, even paying cash bonuses to get people in the door.
"It's tough right now just because the market is booming," says Steve Borock, the founder, president, and head grader at Comic Book Certification Service (CBCS). "People can make so much money in the market right now. If someone is selling comics, it's tough to get them to leave."
The Certified Collectibles Group, an umbrella that includes comic grader Certified Guaranty Company (CGC), has just expanded its facilities by 33%, and the company is offering $1000 sign-on bonuses for new employees across a variety of collectibles fields, and for jobs ranging from grader to shipping clerk to vice president of marketing.
Part of the problem in filling the holes in grading is finding someone who knows what they're doing. Plenty of places will teach you to be a welder or an airplane mechanic. But not this.
"There is no school for it," Borock explains. "So the training is done when they are here. We get collectors who are working a different job, and they want a better job. I reach out to people I know from time to time. So it's not like they don't know how to grade coming in, but we have to teach them how we do it here."
Borock says the key is consistency.
"People might have their own ways of grading," he says. "Like eBay dealers, they under-grade, because they don't want returns. But you can't under-grade in certification. You have to give the best, most true grade without being wrong. And you need to grade the same way as other people in the building."
Over at CGC, primary grader Matt Nelson echoes Borock's call for consistency and more.
"A broad knowledge of comics and a firm grasp of our grading standards are the most important skills," Nelson says. "Graders must also have exceptional attention to detail."
As to the job itself? Working with comics all day might seem a dream to many, but some have described it as "you sit in a dark room with a bright light all day." Nelson explains that's not necessarily the case.
"Well, first off, the CGC grading room is very bright!" he says. "We always have the overhead incandescent lights on as well as personal raking lights. Now if you walk down the hall to our coin graders room, there you will see a very dark room with personal grading lights, but it's the complete opposite for grading comics.
"Secondly, even though we are extremely busy, there's always positive energy that is buzzing around our grading room. We all have a passion for comics and we're excited to see what will hit our desk each day. Every day is different from the next."
"You have to be able to sit in the seat and grade," he says. "You have to be able to focus. It can feel stressful, but we break that up with appropriate breaks and all. And it's usually very rewarding. You'll get people who call you and say, ‘I got my stuff back; this is great, thanks so much. It's right on.' And I get to see every comic book ever. Between them all, it feels like I have the greatest comic collection ever, just passing through my hands. And I do it every day."
Still, the volume is overwhelming. Grading is not just a 40-hour-a-week-job in 2021.
"We're swamped," Borock says. "I'm working 6-7 days a week, and we still can't keep up with the volume that's coming in. People are going collectibles-crazy. It's not just comics. It's art, baseball cards, video games, too."
CGC has a similar deluge.
"We are definitely feeling it in comics," Nelson says. "The submission numbers do not seem to be slowing down, and we are very aware that our turnaround times are not where we want them to be. We are working nights and weekends to get through more submissions. I'd also like to point out that even though we are extremely busy, we are not grading faster to improve our turnaround times. We will never compromise our quality standards to decrease a customer's wait."
And the comics that CBCS or CGC grade often wind up selling for big bucks over at Heritage Auctions. They're hiring a comic grader, too, but this job has a twist.
"Unlike the grading services, we're not just grading one comic, then the next, then the next," says Heritage vice president Barry Sandoval. "It's breaking down collections and determining: What needs to be sent to a grading service, what needs to be sold raw, what should be sold in a group lot? 'Grader' here is a bit of a misnomer. People are processing collections in general, but grading is the biggest part of that."
Sandoval has been with Heritage since 2004 and has seen comics there grow from $10 million a year to $79 million in 2020. Yes, the deluge and demand are the same in their offices.
"It's one thing when some exceptional comic or the highest-graded copy sets off a bidding war. That's expected," he says. "But just to see runs of Kamandi or ROM, something I don't think anyone considers particularly scarce or a really big key going for the highest prices ever…that's indicative of where the market is now. Very, very hot."
Just like the grading services, Sandoval wants Heritage's grades to also have the mark of consistency.
"The challenge is you have to grade a comic the same way at 9 a.m. as you do at 6 p.m., and the same on Tuesday as you do on Wednesday," he says. "Ideally, every raw comic we offer should be graded as if it was done by one person."
And getting that next person—maybe you—is Sandoval's priority.
"Anybody who reads this and is a super-grader should call me and not the other guys," Sandoval says. "Call me!"