Old stock may gain worth as collectible

January 21, 1994|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

Your stock certificates, unfortunately, are worthless.

Over the years, those somber words have appeared many times this column in response to readers whose dusty attics and desk drawers had offered up old certificates that they fervently hoped would be of financial value.

There have been quite a few successes, such as the family last year whose holdings turned out to be worth more than $30,000. They hadn't realized that the obscure company whose name was on their certificate had merged into another that was still alive and kicking.

Most of these discovered certificates, however, are simply worthless pieces of paper that represent defunct firms best left forgotten.

Serving as our intrepid certificate sleuth is Robert Fisher, senior vice president of the New York-based R.M. Smythe & Co. stock-search firm. He's been with the company since 1967, following in the footsteps of his late father, the publisher of the Robert D. Fisher Manuals of Valuable and Worthless Securities.

Apart from the help he has given this column, Fisher, for a fee of $50, will check the status of a company, find out whether it merged with another, determine the value of your stock and let you know how you can collect any unclaimed funds to which you may be entitled. (Send copies of certificates, not originals, to R.M. Smythe, 26 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10004.)

"If the certificate itself is worthless but may have some value as a collectible, we'll tell you what that value is," added Fisher, "and we'll probably offer to buy it."

Fisher is a scripophilist, a collector of antique stock and bond certificates. There are about 15,000 scripophilists in the United States. The value of their holdings are based on a certificate's autograph, age, condition, rarity, historical significance, topic, demand, aesthetics and repayment possibility.

Here are examples of impressive rare certificates:

* Standard Oil Co. certificates signed by John D. Rockefeller in the late 1870s or early 1880s can fetch $12,500 to $15,000 at auction, up from around $5,000 five to 10 years ago aided by the recent boom in autograph collecting.

* Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc. certificates from the 1950s through 1970s feature an 18-color depiction of a circus parade and sell for $300 to $800.

* Houdini Picture Corp. certificates signed by escape artist Harry Houdini command $2,800 or more, up from $500 five years ago.

"I take a long-term vision with my own investment strategies, so collecting certificates just seemed to fit in with my philosophy," said Richard Gode, a Merrill Lynch financial consultant from Kansas City, Mo., who has about 100 high-quality issues in his collection.

Haley Garrison, a dealer and proprietor of Antique Stocks & Bonds in Williamsburg, Va., believes U.S. stock certificates "mirror the American dream." Properly chosen top-quality certificates have appreciated as much as 25 percent a year over the past decade. He believes prices will strengthen further.

"Certificates are in the process of being eliminated over the next five to 10 years on Wall Street, as we go to electronic transfers and little trade slips with nothing but numbers on them," Garrison said. "That's because volume is so enormous that money can be saved by not issuing certificates."

Garrison's book, "Insider's Guide to Antique Securities," costs $250 and is available by writing to him at Drawer JH, Williamsburg, Va. 23187.

"These certificates are for sophisticated collectors and their market isn't as broad as, say, stamps, coins or baseball cards," said Robert Kluge, past president of the International Bond & Share Society's U.S. chapter and proprietor of American Vignettes, Roselle Park, N.J. "Attractive items tend to sell better, and a certificate from the gaudy period of the 1890s, for example, can definitely add value."

William Schmidt of Andover, Mass., president of the 400-member International Bond & Share Society's U.S. chapter, warns that "most very old certificates don't have financial value, and only by working with a dealer can you determine whether they have any collector value, either."

Information about a $25 annual membership in the society, which includes its journal, can be obtained by

contacting its secretary-treasurer, Diane Herzog, care of the R.M. Smythe office.

If you wish to find the value of an old certificate you own and don't want to pay a search fee, you can research history through the financial section of the library by consulting publications of Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's or the Robert D. Fisher manual. Check with the secretary of state's office from which the company charter was issued. Talk with brokers.

If you decide to collect old certificates, start small and enjoy their history and beauty, rather than banking on big price appreciation.

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