Discovering new value in financial flotsam Paper chase: Nostalgia traders are finding a profitable market for old financial documents such as B&O railroad stock certificates.

April 19, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

If you're ever in line behind Microsoft's Bill Gates at Nordstrom, and he charges the polo shirt on MasterCard, and he throws the yellow slip in the trash, dive in there and get it.

It might be worth something someday.

As capitalism tightens its embrace on the planet, the residue of tycoons is becoming a valuable commodity.

Collectors bored of coins and enticed by history are stoking a trade in old stock certificates, bond coupons and other financial flotsam. Documents once stuffed in barristers' files are seeing the light of the 1990s, matted, framed and hanging in living rooms.

"It's a piece of history, and some of it is beautiful art," said Juanada Teas, who lives in Springfield, Va., and collects old financial certificates with her husband, George.

As legal documents, Ms. Teas said, the pieces of paper "are worthless. But they have a worth other than that."

You might say so. A Standard Oil of Ohio stock certificate signed by John D. Rockefeller in the 1800s -- one of maybe 200 in existence -- goes for between $8,000 and $15,000. Paper from the Bank of North America, said to be the United States' first joint-stock company, has fetched more than $30,000.

But you don't need a big portfolio of modern shares to be able to afford the antique ones. Some can be had for a few dollars each at shows like one Saturday in Tysons Corner, Va. Even some intricately engraved certificates with famous signatures sell for a few hundred dollars.

Old stocks and bonds are so numerous, veteran collectors say, that beginners should concentrate on one industry or specialty -- engraved bond coupons, for example, or defunct mining stocks. "It's safe to say that railroads are more popular than all the other stocks put together," said David Strebe, an antique stock and bond dealer in Prince Georges County. "People don't realize that there have been thousands and thousands of different railroads."

One desirable train stock is the United States' first: the Baltimore and Ohio Railway Co., incorporated in 1827, opened in 1830 from Baltimore to what's now Ellicott City.

The certificate depicts the B&O's first engine, the "Tom Thumb," made from scrap metal and gun barrels.

Some local collectors specialize in Maryland companies: Noxell, McCormick, Savings Bank of Baltimore. Fred Weinberg, a stockbroker at Baltimore financial house Legg Mason, has an old certificate for the Hutzler department store chain.

Mr. Strebe once had an old Baltimore Orioles stock certificate. Shares from the Baltimore Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. have an especially attractive harbor scene, he said.

Other collectors specialize in shipping, car companies, canal companies, national bonds or signatures of famous financiers like Jay Gould, J. P Morgan and Henry Ford.

"It's hard to generalize," said Stephen Goldsmith, a partner in R. M. Smythe, a New York firm that deals and does research in old securities.

"You can take the same certificate and show it to 20 people who all want it, and they all might want it for different reasons."

Generally the certificates are worthless because they've been JTC redeemed, the company has merged into another or, frequently, the issuer has gone bankrupt.

By most accounts, "scripophily," as the pastime is known, blossomed in Germany in the 1970s, spread to Britain and then jumped the Atlantic.

Devotees say the hobby is growing, but nobody seems to know precisely by how much. When one national show started in 1985, seven dealers showed up, Mr. Goldsmith said. Now 35 or 40 register each year.

Authorities peg the global number of stock and bond collectors at perhaps 100,000. Scripophilists spend about $17 million a year on their hobby, according to the Bond & Share Society.

Prices have risen, too, although unevenly.

"I have seen price appreciation in all areas except in stocks and bonds that are autographs," Mr. Goldsmith said. "That market is really erratic. If you get three or four people who are interested in something of which there is only one, you can get tremendous prices."

Mavens recommend that beginners focus, buy quality and don't expect to make a DuPont-size pile from their collection.

"The reason to buy something in the hobby area is because it makes you smile," Mr. Goldsmith said. "When people put a collection together based on that premise, somehow they wind up doing well financially."

Marc Rosensweig, a Legg Mason stockbroker, started collecting old corporate paper a year ago. He envisions a day, decades hence, when his heirs have adopted his hobby "and my great-grandchild will say, 'Hey, there's a Bill Gates.' "

The spring show of the Washington Historical Autograph and Certificate Organization will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Westpark Hotel in Tysons Corner, Va.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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