Please upgrade to a Altan Insights Pro Membership in order to access this article:

AFA vs. CAS: What’s the Best Toy Grading Service?

Photo: Rally

As sealed action figures command greater values at auction and arrive on fractional investing marketplaces with greater frequency, many are left to wonder how best to authenticate, preserve, and grade their treasured toys going forward. Those new to the rare toy collecting hobby but seasoned in other collecting arenas like sports cards and comic books will recognize that the choice of grading service for a collectible can have significant impact, from cost to turnaround time to ease of sale and value ultimately realized. 

In rare toys, two grading services stand out here in the United States: Action Figure Authority, more commonly known as AFA, and Collector Archive Services, more commonly known as CAS

A little background on each.

AFA is part of a larger company, CGA, which stands for Collectible Grading Authority and includes other grading services, including VGA, which is the primary WATA competitor for video games. CGA was founded way back in 2000, and therefore has a long-tenured and well-respected reputation in the toy grading space. Undoubtedly, that tenure means that the highest volume of graded games in the market belongs to AFA. For context: in LCG Auctions’ 2022 Spring Premier Auction, 114 AFA-graded items were sold. Compare that to just 20 CAS items. That volume can serve to reinforce a leading position, as newcomers and seasoned collectors alike become most accustomed to seeing AFA-graded items and are therefore most comfortable pursuing their services.

In late 2021, CGA was acquired by Diamond Comic Distributors, the world’s largest distributor of English-language comics. Diamond is a part of Geppi Family Enterprises, which notably also owns Hake’s auctions, a significant purveyor of toys and graded Star Wars figures in particular. The acquisition may aid in modernizing the business - more on that in a moment.

CAS was founded in 2016, and has enjoyed increased momentum of late, driven by the surge of interest in graded collectibles experienced across categories over the last few years. The company benefited in recent years from a friendly interface, compelling value, and strong turnarounds (though those have since been cramped with demand). 

So what are the key differences?

Tenure & Volume in the Market

As mentioned above, AFA has existed for much longer than CAS, and as a result, has developed a more widely-held reputation of credibility than the upstart. The volume of AFA-graded listings is significantly larger than it is for CAS, and that visibility further bolsters brand awareness. In the last six months, 3,163 items were sold on eBay described with the term “AFA graded”. For “CAS graded”, that figure is just 405 items. The addition of “graded” to the search likely excludes a significant portion of relevant listings, but it is necessary to also exclude erroneous listings that simply include the letters “AFA” or “CAS” within random words (“case”, “occasion”, etc). 

That track record has contributed to a market where many contend that AFA-graded items are able to fetch some premium to CAS-graded items. Data is limited and somewhat unreliable in a thinly traded and rapidly advancing market, but this does appear to be the case, even if that gap may be tightening somewhat.

While the first-mover advantage is certainly of note, it is by no means insurmountable, something to which AFA-owner CGA can attest. VGA was established long before competitor, WATA Games, but WATA quickly asserted itself as the market leader in recent years. Though a source of some controversy, high-end auction partnerships have helped cement WATA's position, while VGA lags in visibility and values attained.

User Interface & Submission Process

Until very recently, this was the starkest difference between the two grading companies. Anyone who spent time on the AFA website was quick to report that they had time traveled to the mid 2000s - you could be convinced that you just returned from a Friday night trip to Blockbuster, sat down at a Gateway computer with a dial-up modem, and fired up Internet Explorer. It was aesthetically unappealing, clunky, and difficult to navigate - tiring. On the plus side, it did feature a population report, which is critical in the development of a collectible category as collectors seek to understand the supply of perceived grails. However, the population report was also cumbersome to navigate and even harder to understand. There’s additionally reason to believe the numbers weren’t necessarily up to date. 

However, the website has since been replaced and brought much nearer to present day standards! With that change, we’ve lost the population report, though the expectation is that it will return in time. 

Undoubtedly, the disparity in websites worked in CAS’ favor during the recent boom. While not necessarily on the bleeding edge, the site offers a relatively easy-to-navigate destination for collectors, including the ability to intuitively search for specific toys, see them imaged, and have the grading price swiftly displayed. This was (and still is) a sharp contrast to AFA, where submission processes/pricing require an understanding of tiers, codes, and upgrades. It’s not rocket science, but as far as leading horses to water goes, it could be smoother. That type of friction is not ideal in an increasingly competitive field; nobody wants to feel like they’re filing their taxes in order to submit a collectible for grading. Maybe accountants? Come to think of it, the venn diagram of accountants and toy collectors is probably not insignificant...

CAS does not currently offer a population report, though that is not uncommon for a grading service of its age. However, they will likely be under significant pressure to offer one as the volume of CAS graded items grows. It does presently offer a hologram search, so that collectors can ensure that an item they’re purchasing has indeed been graded by the service and that the grades are as noted on the label.

Grading

The grading scales between the two services are not particularly dissimilar. Both operate on a numeric scale in increments of 5 (75, 80, 85, etc), with sub-grades applied to the Figure, Card, and Blister in the case of a carded figure (like the Star Wars Kenner figures). Figure refers to the action figure itself and accessories, card refers to the cardboard display to which the figure is attached, and blister refers to the clear piece adhered to the card that contains the figure.

The detractors to grades are as one might expect. For the figure, defects include “paint wear, discoloration, over-spray, fading or dismemberment” per AFA. The blister is judged “by dents, scratches, fading, yellowing, clouding, sticker residue, tearing, cuts, lifting, soiling, rub marks, crushing, gluing, factory cut and foreign items (ink mark or staple etc.).” Finally, the card is examined for “creasing, bending, rolling, tearing, scuffing, scratching, lifting, print marks, loss of gloss, soiling, discoloring, edge wear, nicks, punctures, ink or foreign markings, peg hole punch, tape repair, focus, price sticker, sticker tear, sticker residue, water damage, bubbling and attached foreign objects.”

Toys at the high end of the 75-85 range are considered to be “case fresh,” and at the low end, have very few flaws and light imperfections. This emphasizes how strong the condition is of items graded higher.

There are a few key differentiators between the two services, though. CAS has elected to offer a “real” grade to address the disparity in condition in toys of the same grade. Two 85s, for example, may not be in equal condition - with AFA, collectors may look to the sub-grades to better understand disparities, whereas CAS will label a toy with a specific number like 86.1 or 87.2. Both services offer “+” designations for those toys sitting at the high end of their respective ranges. 

Collectors also note that AFA has long boasted a roster of well-known and reputed authenticators, which played no small role in the company becoming the standard-bearer.

Pricing

To grade a carded Star Wars action figure, a 12 Back-A for instacne, one could expect to pay a base grading fee of $59.99 at CAS. There is then the potential for upgrades to the acrylic (+$15) or to turnaround ($200 for 7 day, $400 for 48 hour), as well as additional fees for insurance ($1 per $100 of coverage). Included in that base fee are a statement of archival certificate, digital photographs, cleaning, and a protective polybag. 

The approximate turnaround time for items such as these (considered tier 1 because they are standard) is currently 180-240 days. 

Pricing and tier codes are listed on the CGA (AFA) website. Perfect. However, they are of lacking utility at the moment, as both the Economy and Express tiers are currently listed as closed. The cheapest you can grade a standard figure for is the $90 Premium price, which would typically yield a 14-21 day turnaround, but per the site, turnaround times are not currently accurate and are not guaranteed. The base price for standard figures was previously $35-40, but is listed as N/A on the site presently. Cleaning ($10), grading summaries ($25), and UV-protection acrylic ($20) are available as upgrades. There is some confusion, as cleaning is listed at $10 in pricing and tier codes, but $3 under submission instructions, where the option for photos is also listed for $10-25.

Economy is currently noted to be closed, but if it were open, turnaround would be 4+ months. 

Conclusion

While toy grading has been around for many years, as the category heats up to an unprecedented degree, the battle for grading supremacy may only be starting. AFA has deservedly benefited from hard-earned credibility, built over decades. But shortcomings in modern user experience had opened the door for viable competitors like CAS to provide consumers with a more seamless, straightforward solution. Now acquired and starting a new chapter, AFA has the opportunity to answer. 

Which company will be grading your treasures?

Want to get more great insights and access to powerful tools to help guide your investment strategy? Signup for Altan Insights now.

Disclaimer: You understand that by reading Altan Insights, you are not receiving financial advice. No content published here constitutes a recommendation that any particular security, transaction, or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. You further understand that the author(s) are not advising you personally concerning the nature, potential, value or suitability of any particular security, transaction, or investment strategy. You alone are solely responsible for determining whether an investment, security or strategy, or any other product or service, is appropriate or suitable for you based on your investment objectives and personal financial situation. Please speak with a financial advisor to understand if the risks inherent in trading are appropriate for you. Trade at your own risk.