Within the general descriptions below there is latitude for individual differences in grading standards. Part of the process of becoming an informed collector is learning how various professional booksellers grade their offerings.
Very Fine (VF)
The highest grade given to any copy, very fine is a term that describes a crisp fresh copy and it admits no flaws. Any copy with even a minor blemish must not be graded very fine; therefore, there is no else very fine grade. Please note that some sellers use the terms mint or as new in place of very fine. While we feel that very fine is more precise, there is nothing improper in the use of those terms in description.
A copy that is without visible flaws, but one that may lack the pristine crispness of a very fine copy. Many antiquarian dealers quite properly never give a book a grade higher than fine. A book that is graded fine has had excellent and loving care. Any minor blemish in the book or the dust wrapper must be noted in the description.
Very Good (VG)
The most common grade given to a collectable copy, very good means exactly what it says. A very good copy is no longer fresh; it has been handled and shows some signs of wear, but it is still sound and appealing. Flaws such as ownership signatures, bookplates and remainder marks must be noted in the description, along with rubbing, chips and tears, and price-clipping in dust wrappers, where applicable.
To quote one of our favorite booksellers, Good aint good. Good is the lowest grade given to a collectable copy. The book has been used and abused, but it is whole. There may be one major flaw, like dampstaining or a cracked hinge, that keeps it from a higher grade, or there may be an accumulation of minor problems. A dust wrapper may have some design elements lost, but it must not be fragmentary. A term used for a copy hovering on the brink of uncollectability is fair for a weak good.
A copy must not be given a collectable grade if it is not whole either in the binding or in the text, or if it has been abused to the point that it is no longer sound or attractive. A frequently seen example of an uncollectable book is an ex-library copy, with such common blemishes as pockets glued toor torn offthe endpapers, abundant rubber-stamping and pasted-down lending sheets. An ex-library copy, while not collectable, may be an acceptable reading copy. However, when its aesthetic appeal or structural integrity is lost, a book is no longer collectable.
Please note that except for the very fine condition, many booksellers use steps in between grades, such as near fine, very good plus or very good minus. Some dealers also grade the books and the dust wrappers separately; this, too, is acceptable practice.
Firsts most recent in-depth discussion of book grading can be found in the February 1998 through June 1998 issues of Firsts magazine. Please refer to them for details. Ordering information can be found under Back Issues on this website.
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