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Millionaire's Memorabilia

Antique Securities that Document American Capitalism Are Popular Collectibles. Is the Field Hot? Hey, Was Rockefeller Rich?
Debbi J. Karpowicz
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

Bored with collecting Biedermeier? Blasé about baseball cards? Want to quit coins? If your answer is yes--heck, even if it's no--you'll probably be fascinated by a relatively new area of collecting that's growing by leaps and bounds and attracting scores of dedicated followers. It's scripophily--translated from Greek to mean "love of stock"--and it refers to antique stocks and bonds. Yes, the very same securities that your grandfather and great-grandfather kept under a mattress or in a safe-deposit box, until they were cashed in, lost, burned or--the best scenario--inherited by you.

If you don't already own any, you may want to start. The field of scripophily, which is less than 20 years old, is picking up speed faster than you can say "NASDAQ." And it's no wonder. Some 30,000 collectors worldwide have gotten into the habit, for numerous reasons. "Scripophily is still in its infancy, even after 16 years, and is growing steadily," says George LaBarre, a Hollis, New Hampshire-based dealer who has 5.3 million pieces in his inventory.

"It is appealing for newcomers, because they can get a good buy; there are tremendous opportunities in a new hobby," LaBarre adds. Scripophily also doesn't intimidate enthusiasts or lure them into what LaBarre describes as the "shark-infested waters" of other collectibles. "In three to five years, on a reasonable budget, you can become the serious authority on a given topic, simply because the field is so young," he says. "You can get fabulous things at low cost."

Unlike other collectibles, antique stocks and bonds have a unique distinction: They can be used to trace the history of America's economic development. If you're interested in blue-chip businesses, there's a virtual gold mine of sought-after securities issued at the birth of such industries as automobiles, aviation, railroads and canals. You'll find millionaire's memorabilia bearing the signatures of the original robber barons--Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, J.P. Morgan, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and other captains of industry. Even better, each security also represents the schemes, steals and deals surrounding each share.

Consider, for example, the 1886 bond for the New Jersey Junction Railroad Co. It was issued when J.P. Morgan ended a huge dispute between the competing Rockefeller and Vanderbilt railroads that ran parallel to each other and waged price wars to outdo one another. Since Morgan bankrolled both sides, he brainstormed the idea of creating a junction railway that would link the two, and thus jack prices up, not down! This stock also depicts Morgan's yacht, the Corsair, where the rail barons met to create the new line. It became the inspiration for one of the world's most famous remarks. When someone asked Morgan how much the yacht had cost, he replied, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

This story embodies what scripophily is all about.

"Scripophily is the history of American capitalism," says Scott Winslow, a dealer based in Bedford, New Hampshire. "These securities financed the growth of the greatest industrial power on the planet. They represent the success of an entire culture."

Adds Bill Hogan, a collector based in Newton, Massachusetts: "It's a souvenir of the American capitalist market, which we'll never see again."

Haley Garrison, a dealer based in Williamsburg, Virginia, and president of the American chapter of the 566-member International Bond and Share Society, concurs. "Scripophily chronicles the blood, sweat and tears of the American dream," he says. "The antique securities are the financial river that runs through our economic system, that built the empires and companies. [They are] the capitalist system on which our country was founded. Edison couldn't have made a lightbulb without money."

Antique stocks and bonds can also provide a hands-on history lesson that probably couldn't be obtained elsewhere. Just ask Bill Kissinger, a Maryland-based collector who had ancestors on both sides of the Battle of Gettysburg. Kissinger owns numerous Confederate bonds, including one with a silhouette of Stonewall Jackson.

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