What Makes Old Stocks Valuable?

An American dream: you find something in an attic or flea market that turns out to be valuable. That something could be a stock certificate that is still valid for ownership in a company. Of course, if you were to find one, it should be researched.

But unfortunately, that seldom happens. However, it still might be worth something as a collector’s item. This article discusses the collector value of antique stock certificates.

Ultimately, of course, what makes a collectible stock certificate valuable is someone’s willingness to buy it at a particular price. The more people who want it, the more it is worth. That’s the demand side of Supply and Demand.

But what about the supply side – the certificates themselves? The following are some of the characteristics of the supply side of certificates that help create more value.

1. Aesthetic appeal – Is it pretty, powerful, soothing, impressive, memorable, joyful, comforting, funny? Do I like it? Is it “me?” You’ll notice these are all emotions of the viewer. That’s what art does if it’s good – it evokes emotions. Here are some of the decorative aspects of stock certificates that most people appreciate:

-The vignette(s). One or more of these pictures can be found on most certificates. Vignettes are usually made from original etchings and cover many different subjects and scenes. Many are so detailed that they can show a wide, complex harbor scene, a busy western town or the individual feathers on an American Bald Eagle.

-The border. Borders are often quite ornate and “frame” the certificate. They can be intaglio printed, which results in a precise 3-D effect. Some may have extra vignettes woven into the design or intertwined in filigree.

-The writing. In the old days, certificates were filled in by hand. In that period, beautiful hand writing was a source of pride, so older documents sometimes look like practiced calligraphy samples.

-The extras. Certificates may have one or more of the following: a company seal (embossed), revenue or transfer stamps (stuck onto the front or back), redemption coupons (for interest or dividend payments), an attached stub (similar to a check stub for registration), under prints (a light design seemingly in the background), sophisticated color tone usage (gradients, realism, dimensional)

-The impression. This goes back to the emotions evoked. Does the overall certificate strike you? Is it one you would be proud to own or display?

2. Signatures – This is similar to the “writing” above, but this is special. Who wrote it? Original, hand written signatures of well known people (Rockefeller, Houdini, Edison, Disney…) are usually in high demand. Even their printed signatures can have incremental value because it is a document from an organization they were affiliated with at a certain time in history. If you research names on certificates, you will find fascinating stories behind them that you probably never learned in history class.

3. Scarcity – This is trickier than it seems. In general, the rarer a document is the more valuable it is, but not always. Take railroad certificates. Relatively, there are lots of them. But, relativley, there are also lots of railroad certificate collectors.

And there are people who collect other types of railroad memorabilia and decide to collect a few railroad certificates. And there are stamp collectors that also collect certificates that have stamps on them.

There are also many people trying to fill in collection themes (geographic, company lineage, varieties, vignette subject…). So a certificate may have more samples available than another, but still be more valuable because the demand is higher.

4. Condition – Most of the time, as with any collectible, the better shape a certificate is in, the more valuable. Very old certificates almost always show some signs of aging and wear (fold creases, fading, rough edges, cancellation marks or punches…). After all, how would you look after 150 years? But excessive marring (heavy stains, splits, holes, tears…) diminish value.

5. Age – Usually, the older the better. Early certificates are often rarer, have more character, have interesting vignettes and have historical significance.

6. History – Every old stock certificate is literally a unique piece of history. Many collectors become history buffs in the process of researching the people and stories behind their certificates. You can learn how towns were named, the quirky way newspaper stories were written long ago, why the mining labor disputes erupted, how railroads became the arteries and veins of America, the trials and joys of Old West living, the crazy inventor ideas that birthed major industries, and lots more.

So these are six major stock certificate characteristics that create value. Add in the overall fact that there is a finite supply of antique stock certificates and, currently, a growing demand, and you have a beautiful Supply/Demand scenario – that’s how value increases.

(Disclaimer: No one should promote stock certificates as an investment. You should collect them because you enjoy doing so, and if they happen to increase in value, that just makes it more fun.)

Scripophily (the collecting of antique stock certificates) only got its name and wide recognition as a legitimate collecting field about forty years ago. So, while there are plenty of high-value certificates, there are even more that are very affordable. Enjoy them.

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