The airline industry is the focus of aeroscripophilists, who collect financial papers with ties to aviation.

Airline stocks sought for their paper value

November 03, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Those who hold bankrupt United Airlines' stock may joke that it's not worth the paper it's printed on.

But it's no joke: Wall Street believes the stock is worth about 50 cents. At the same time, the going rate for the paper: $29.95, because unlike wanting a stake in the company, a growing number of people want to buy the paper.

Those people are aeroscripophilists. They scour the Internet and tables at traveling fairs for financial papers such as stocks and bonds, specifically those with ties to aviation.

Hobbyists have long collected other scripophily in industries ranging from railroads to automobiles. But the troubled airline industry has recently been attracting their attention and cash.

They are the fan base of the long-gone, the merged, the failing, the once-and-maybe-still high flying. Those who assign more value to what an airline prints than what an airline makes and who like the pictures, famous signatories and distinctive engraving, generally more than their investment prospects.

It's not clear how many are out there. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands. But it is clear that as more companies stop issuing paper stock and as some of those companies disappear, there are more people buying, selling and hoarding pieces of the nation's and the world's rich history in flight through small slips of aging fiber.

"Such a hobby is not mainstream," said Robert A. Kerstein, a Northern Virginia collector and broker as well as head of the Professional Scripophily Trade Association. "Most people just frame them and hang them on the wall."

He has a Web site, www.scripophily.com, where most of his sales are made - some 5,000 to 10,000 items a year, with the aviation kind making up about 10 percent to 15 percent.

It has become easier to find specific papers and build a collection because of the Internet, which ironically also is the medium largely responsible for the decline in paper stocks. Some still look for them at small fairs, such as a transportation show in Gaithersburg this weekend, or at the bigger sales, such as one in Tyson's Corner, Va., in January.

Most companies no longer automatically issue stock papers, leaving transactions to be conducted and recorded electronically. Some will issue buyers paper, but for a fee of $30 to $50 - more than a collector would likely want to pay just to get the paper.

Kerstein, a history buff and former financial executive at an aviation company, says the niche is filled with a range of people. Many just want to hold a small, tangible piece of history in an electronic age. Some worked for an airline or had a family member who worked for one. He encourages them to keep the papers rather than sell them to him.

Others are World War II vets, those who remember fondly a more genteel age of commercial aviation when people dressed up to climb aboard, or people who just believe the papers are nice to look at or will grow in value as fewer of them are for sale.

While some have collected the papers for decades, keeping them instead of trading them in as companies folded or were merged, they have only become something of a hobby in the last 20 years, with interest growing at a faster clip in the last five years or so, those in the business say.

Germans and Britons have collected financial papers longer. Americans, who preferred railroad stocks and memorabilia, have gained interest more recently, although no one seems sure why. Money is rarely the motive for an aeroscripophilist - or aeroscripophiliac, as Kerstein has called them - so the reason is probably not that there are more troubled airlines threatening to disappear and make their papers more valuable.

Roger Mola, a contributing researcher for the Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space magazine, said he believes some fuel is coming from nostalgic baby boomers.

"A lot of people get to retirement age and want to re-create memories," he said. "At the same time, they're buying good commercial art, like old cartoon cels. [Stock certificates] aren't necessarily a good investment, but the worst that can happen is you have a nice piece of artwork."

Mola found that many people who become serious collectors also become sellers. They buy several of the same stock and only want to keep one certificate. Most, he found, liked to talk about the hobby, handing out advice to newcomers and trading stories and papers with the indoctrinated.

EBay has proved to be a boon. A recent search of "scripophily" returned 12 items for sale ranging in asking price from $4 to $23.16 plus shipping. They included old brewery and mining papers. There were two hits under "airline stocks": Pan American Airline stocks from the 1950s or 1960s for $3 and a Florida West Airlines stock certificate for $17.95.

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