The Dilemma of Knife Condition Grades- The good, the bad and the ugly

New collectors of older knives are faced with a serious dilemma. Simply put- they don’t have a frame of reference to grade a knife’s condition. And the knife price guides we all use don’t define knife condition grades with absolute specificity.

Setting aside the brand of the knife, condition grading (the “scoring” a knife’s condition) is the most commonly accepted practice for determining a knife’s value.

This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. You may not remember the anxiety you felt when you first started out trying to figure out whether a knife you were looking at was worth the asking price based on its condition or not. I do. The implications meant money- in some cases, lots of money.

Say you find a knife with the proper knife operations (walk and talk), the handles are crack and chip free, the blades are full, but one of the blade’s tang stamps isn’t legible anymore, so what is that knife’s grade?

I’ll never forget buying my first pearl-handled Case Brothers Toenail, the most expensive knife I’d ever bought at the time. I used the seller’s grade condition to figure it was worth the price he was asking. (He did come off the price a bit, but I used his grade as the benchmark for establishing its value, like most newbie buyers do.) The seller, a reputable figure in the knife collecting world, called it “Cleaned to Near Mint.” Then when I got the knife the tang stamps weren’t legible (a result of its cleaning) and boy was I disappointed.

Collectors of new knives- don’t have to worry about all this, but collectors of older knives do. They must know what to ask and look for when considering a knife purchase. Obviously a knife’s condition grade plays a major factor in its value.

Condition Grades are a ranking of the knife based upon its condition. You know the- Mint, Near Mint, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Poor and Junk identifiers.

In order for classifications to work, we must all agree what the grades actually mean.

I used to be preoccupied with determining a knife’s condition grade, but I found there are different grade charts. And there are different names/classifications for the conditions too. Many authors of knife books even advocated their own grading system.

As I studied the different systems I found they all had one thing in common- the lack of an exact criteria for each grade. O. K. I’m a little anal,  but I wanted to know exactly what to look for…..exactly.

The lack of specificity drove me crazy!

We have these condition grades without the exact, specific, benchmarks to determine the subsets of conditions in order to arrive at the overall condition grade.

I thought we needed something allowing us to rate the conditions of each aspect of the knife, like this oversimplified example:

  • Tang Stamp Clarity (1-10)
  • Knife Operation- Walk & Talk (1- 10)
  • Handles (1-10)
  • Blade(s) Fullness and Overall Condition (1- 10)

You get the idea- each category must be given a score, then tallied to determine the overall Condition Grade.

How about a Picture Book?

Otherwise, I thought a picture chart would be best- with a Junker knife on the far left, then on the far right a Mint knife and the different variations in between. Then I can look up and see the knife grade conditions. Right?

Well, actually Bruce Voyles in his The IBCA Price Guide to Antique Knives has just such a chart. It was very helpful when I first started, but I soon realized it didn’t work either. No, I might have a knife with 3 things that matched one of the knives pictured and then two that didn’t. So, how was I grade that knife?

So, what we have are multiple scoring systems and a lack of exact subscoring criteria of the various categories, resulting in the total lack of an objective standard.

Going on fifteen years later-

I came to the conclusion- it really doesn’t matter anyway. Seller’s are going to ask what they want and buyers pay what they want. The seller is going to think the knife is in better condition than the buyer. And in the end, it comes down to each parties’ motivation.

So, if you are a newer collector what does all this mean to you?

Invent your own “I like it and want it” system. Look at all various “condition” factors and then apply the “I like it and want it” grade. The more you like it and want it, the higher its value is to you.

Isn’t that what matters anyway?

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Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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