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.
Collector Richard Gregg has what he calls "the oldest-known bond"--one issued by the Dutch East India Co. in 1621. He framed it in a glassed-in case with a model of the Half-Moon, the ship that Henry Hudson used for sailing across the Atlantic.
Since many documents have a fascinating--even irreverent--story surrounding them, they frequently become conversation pieces. Witness, for example, the state of South Carolina's "whorehouse bond," which carpetbagger Gov. Robert K. Scott issued in 1871 on a house of ill repute. When the state found out, the 6 percent Sterling bonds were confiscated and cut-canceled so that no one could redeem them.
Attractive artwork and graphics also make some shares highly desirable as collectibles. The same companies that printed bank-notes produced stock and bond certificates, complete with engravings. There were even special engravers whose sole purpose was to create beautiful portraits, vignettes and lettering.
"It's commercial art, and an art form that we'll never see again," says Hogan. In fact, Hogan has noticed that interior decorators are fond of using vintage shares in private homes and in theme restaurants. It makes sense: What better place to display an old railroad certificate than in a caboose functioning as an eatery?
Especially suitable for framing is a piece such as the stock certificate issued by Ringling Brothers in 1970; it's generally regarded as one of the most colorful American securities ever produced.
It's because of all these things that scripophily attracts people from all walks of life: history buffs, art and antiques lovers, aficionados of cars and, yes, cigars, and people who simply want to rub elbows, so to speak, with some of America's self-made millionaires such as J.P. Morgan.
Yesterday's stocks and bonds are also just the thing for today's millionaires, CEOs, deal-makers and Donald Trump wanna-bes. Folks who work in the financial community collect for obvious reasons: They can use their framed documents as a corporate art gallery to convey success and power to clients, not to mention to open up the topic of finances in a conversation--even though the shares themselves have lost their intrinsic value. (It sure beats an office that displays one's penchant for ducks.)
Joe Queenan will tell you. The well-known satirist owns a Chinese railroad bond and believes that vintage securities are even better than paintings in an office. "They are actually fine art, beautifully drawn," Queenan says. "They're like having a lithograph. Most paintings are terrible and are distractions in an office, but stock certificates fit in."
"They are the original limited-editions," says David Beach, a dealer and collector based in Winter Park, Florida, because only a specific amount of bonds were issued for some ventures. "They were numbered and would be impossible to reproduce today," he adds.
Scripophily has even drawn collectors away from other fields. LaBarre knows all about it. "It has become a strong hobby," LaBarre says. "Unlike coins, [scripophily] is not plagued by grading issues. Grading is an obsession with coins, stamps and baseball cards."
If you have never heard of scripophily before, you're not alone. The field started in the United States only after the publication, in Europe in 1978, of a book titled Old Securities. Compiled by two German bankers, Ulrich Drumm and Alfons Henseler, and containing nothing but photographs, the book started the U.S. trend. Europeans had known about the field for years. Compared to American stocks and bonds, European securities are generally considered more beautiful and better examples of art; a certificate from the Company of the Harbor Facilities of Bruges, Belgium, dated 1904, is a perfect example. "You can walk up to 100 people in Germany, and 95 out of 100 would know about [certificate] collecting, do it themselves or know someone who does," says LaBarre. In fact, he says, "I sell more material to Germany than to the States."
New Hampshire dealer Winslow concurs, saying that he has almost 7,000 people on his mailing list, primarily in the United States, Europe and Canada. "The European activity was a catalyst for growth here," he adds.
Word spread, and by 1980, the auction house R.M. Smythe, in New York City, held its first-ever U.S. auction completely devoted to antique stocks and bonds, says Smythe president Diana Herzog.
Today, the field is burgeoning. Particularly newsworthy is that more than 20 million antique stocks and bonds recently surfaced in the East German treasury archives. At some point, they may flood the market, although no one really knows what's there. Some dealers, like Garrison, dismiss most of the stash as "wallpaper." Herzog says, "I suspect many are 1920s German inflation bonds, printed by the millions, which have never been popular." Dealers such as LaBarre, however, see reason for enthusiasm: "The perception of most dealers is that it will cause a tremendous flurry of excitement--and introduce new people to the hobby. It's a gigantic deal."
Furthermore, some believe that antique stocks and bonds become increasingly valuable simply because the actual issuance of certificates is slowly going the way of the Model T, being replaced by electronic transactions. In fact, in May 1995 the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a "T+3" amendment, which shortens the lag time between a trade and settlement from five days to three.
"It is simply more convenient for investors to keep their stocks in 'street name' with their broker," says Marc Beauchamp, director of media relations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Securities Dealers. This way, he says, there are no actual certificates to be lost, misplaced or burned.
Another factor is that an all-time auction record was recently set when Massachusetts collector Ned Downing paid $36,300 (plus tax) at a Smythe auction for the oldest surviving U.S. stock certificate (see "George Washington Banked Here," page 253). Dated June 7, 1783, it was the only extant share in the first bank in the States--the Bank of North America--which was the first U.S. corporation.
"This record has a positive effect," says Herzog. "It says that these old financial instruments are considered as important as other documents. It takes the field to another level."
OK, by now you're possibly a Ned Downing wanna-be. The million dollar question is: Where to start?
The first thing is to find a theme that interests you. In his second book on the subject, Scripophily: The Art of Finance (The Museum of American Financial History, New York, 1994), author Keith Hollender says, "Deciding on a collecting theme is the first and most important step in starting a collection." Hollender, principal of The Scripophily Shop at London's Brittania Hotel, points out three important events that shaped the commercial development of the United States: the building of railroads, which began in 1830; the discovery and exploitation of minerals, as exemplified by the California Gold Rush of 1849; and the American Civil War. These three themes, Hollender writes, "are most amply depicted by the bond and share issues of the time."
"Develop a coherent idea or goal," advises Winslow. "People collect on many topics. Do some reading on the industry you select. Learn the history of what you're considering." Winslow practices what he preaches: His office is filled with history and reference books.
You might follow Massachusetts collector Hogan's example: A childhood love of German-made LGB train sets inspired his collection of railroad stock certificates. If you share his enthusiasm, there's no limit to the railroad stocks you might acquire. You could purchase a $1,000 bond of the Boston, Hartford & Erie Railroad Co., issued in New York in 1867. As described in Garrison's current catalog, the money-green bond sells for $300 and features a vignette of a large-stacked locomotive puffing billows of smoke, as well as multitudes of coupons, all featuring a miniature train. Or, for $750, you might purchase the aforementioned bond issued to, and signed as trustee by, J.P. Morgan for the New Jersey Junction Railroad Co., issued in 1886 in New York. This bond has two interesting peculiarities, Garrison says. To prevent counterfeiting, the bond was printed in 23 typefaces, and Morgan had the printer include his yacht, the Corsair, in the Hudson River scene below the trustee's signature.
Or you could follow Maryland collector Kissinger's example, and purchase a $500 bond for the Elmira (New York) to Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Railroad. Kissinger wryly states that this was a 999-year bond issued in 1863 at 7 percent interest. At its maturity, it would be worth--let's put it this way: a 7 with 23 zeroes! "It was the original zero-coupon bond," he says with a chuckle. The bond was redeemed in 1937 by the railroad. "They didn't know what they were getting into," Kissinger says. "It would have bankrupted the entire United States."
Kissinger also has a share from the Walt Disney Co., which he has framed with a Disney dollar. "Only two [groups] can print currency in the United States," Kissinger says with a laugh. "The U.S. government and Disney."
Whatever you do, "Don't try to collect everything," warns collector Gregg. "You'll have a hodgepodge. I did that, but then shifted to pre-1800 documents."
One of Gregg's prized possessions was printed on sheepskin; it's a scarce stock certificate for the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, which was built between 1792 and 1796. Gregg adds that the share, which depicts a wagon drawn by horses, "is one of the first certificates with a vignette."
Frank Bishop of Atlanta, who has collected for eight years, built his collection around signatures of noted financiers, including Rockefeller, Frick, Gould and Morgan. His prized possessions include a railroad stock dated from the 1850s, when J.P. Morgan was an agent for the George Peabody Co. in London. It is signed by Morgan and made out to the investor. The field, Bishop says, "is a terrific investment of [your free] time."
Then you have people like Beach, the Florida collector who claims to have the world's largest collection of material signed by Jay Gould. "He was the most fascinating man in American history," Beach says. Gould frequently started all kinds of rumors to positively affect his financial position. Says Beach, "He was the original inside trader."
Beach's collection includes stocks that Gould signed for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway Co. (1882) and the Nyack and Northern Railroad (1871), in addition to Gould's numerous handwritten letters, annual free railway passes and even an opera pass that volunteered his private box. Beach also collects monied memorabilia bearing other famous signatures. He owns a share signed by Fred Pabst, founder of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer; a bond signed by Lee DeForest, inventor of the radio tube; and a security from the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., signed by Harvey Firestone, which is worth about $15,000. "It's a kingpin," says Beach. "There are only three of them."
Collector George Teas is executive director of the Washington Historical Autograph and Certificate Organization (WHACO), a scripophily organization founded in 1993 in Washington, D.C., to educate members. "It's [to give people confidence] before going to big auctions," he says. Teas, a former Air Force pilot, collects aviation certificates. His most unusual is a 1929 share in the William H. Boyes Airship Co. "I've only seen two of those," he says. "But I really want one signed by the Wright Brothers."
Teas also owns other certificates, which he has framed in unique ways. Scripophily naturally lends itself to unusual framing that can include photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, engraved brass plates and artifacts. For example, Teas found a share from the EatMore Chocolate Co. that was signed by two people named Hershey--yes, the Hersheys. He framed it with a giant Hershey bar. He also scooped up certificates from the B&O, Pennsylvania, Reading and Jersey Short Line railroads--the four real-life railroads featured on the Monopoly board--and framed them with the board itself, complete with houses, hotels and dice. "You can't do that with baseball cards and stamps," he quips.
Cigar enthusiasts can acquire stock certificates from early cigar makers. LaBarre, for example, offers an attractive one, in green, from the Cigar Machine Corp. of America, dated 1913. Because a vignette depicts the cigar making machinery, the certificate is "appealing and very scarce, bordering on rare," he says. It could be yours for about $150.
Then there's the stock from the Keyes-Baker Cigar Rolling Machine Co. of New York, issued in 1901 in Binghamton, New York. Quite rare, but not as attractive as the cigar machine stock, this one depicts an eagle, not a machine, and has an orange-and-black background; it's worth about $100. LaBarre has another certificate, from the Tobacco Products Corp., dated 1930, which shows three people picking tobacco in the field. This one comes in a rainbow of colors: purple, black, olive, orange, brown and light blue.
You could follow Teas' example here. Says LaBarre: "It would be nice to frame one with a cigar-box label, old cigar bands or an entire cigar--it's a matter of taste." (If you're really interested, you could ask LaBarre about collecting early revenue stamps that were used to tax tobacco products. Or talk to Beach about his inventory of advertising cigar-box labels dated from 1870 to 1910. But that's another story.)
Into autos? Winslow recently held an auction that cataloged stocks from companies including Studebaker, Tucker, Elgin and Chicago Yellow Cab. "The autos virtually all sell," Winslow says. "They are a very popular area."
Believe it or not, you can even purchase stock certificates of swindles. How about the one that depicts one of the most original rip-offs of all time? Dated 1881, it's for the Keely Motor Co. of Pennsylvania, which claimed to manufacture a "hydropneumatic pulsating vacue machine" that converted water into fuel. Garrison sells it for about $485. Or, how about another flimflam financial document, the suspicious stock offered by the Swede Ivar Kreuger and his wooden-match company? Match king Kreuger floated the stock as part of an elaborate pyramid scheme. Then there's the share from the scurrilous (and bogus) Uncle Sam Oil Co., later known as the "Uncle Sucker" oil company, with an engraving of Uncle Sam holding a set of scales and, some say, winking.
Garrison also holds a stock from con man Bernie Cornfeld's sham IOS mutual fund company; it has a vignette showing a topless woman. With these and all the securities in his inventory, Garrison includes full research with every sale--as do all the dealers. In fact, Garrison's catalog, filled with anecdotes, stories and history, is a highly entertaining read.
Winslow, another walking encyclopedia of stock certificates, has a certificate from another bogus business, the Lampazos Silver Mines Co. It was issued in 1918 by swindler George Graham Rice, a con man who served four jail terms in federal penitentiaries, and who later wrote a book about his adventures called My Adventures with Your Money.
Want to create your own collection? Here's how not to get swindled yourself.
One of the most important elements of an antique security is the autograph, and the more well-known the signer, the higher its value. Age is the second factor: Garrison recommends finding out when an industry was in its infancy, then getting securities dated as close to its beginnings as possible. This includes railroads in the 1830s, oil in the 1860s and automobiles and aircraft in the early 1900s. Condition is another element of value; the less wear and tear, the higher the value. The fourth characteristic is rarity; Hollender believes that four factors create rarity: high demand, low initial issue, a high level of redemption (in the case of bonds) and age. Also consider historical significance; you've hit the Triple Crown when you own the stock certificate for Standard Oil--one of America's most important companies--signed by the two men who founded it, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler, and issued in the period from 1876 to 1892. The certificate for the Standard Oil Trust is worth anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000, while one for Standard Oil of Ohio can be worth as much as $15,000.
The pièce de résistance, however, is the Standard Oil Trust certificate in Garrison's inventory, for 10,000 shares. It was signed and receipted by Rockefeller. Today, after undergoing splits and dividends, and after being reinvested, and reflecting the various companies that arose from Standard Oil such as Mobil, Exxon and Standard Oil of California and Indiana, the stock would be worth more than $1.6 trillion. "That's one-fourth of the U.S. gross national product," says Garrison, who offers it for $6,500.
Recently, Garrison found a similar stock, issued in 1882 to another Standard Oil founder, Benjamin Brewster. He returned it to Brewster's palatial mansion in upstate New York, which has since been converted into the Brewster Inn, where the share is now on permanent display. The elaborate dinner that followed the presentation is a story in itself. It included a four-foot-high ice sculpture in the shape of an oil rig, with the words "Standard Oil" exploding over the top, plus a working railroad that threaded itself through the hors d'oeuvres table. The five-course dinner included--what else?--oysters Rockefeller, plus a "Black Gold" dessert of a chocolate pipeline filled with crème anglaise "oil."
Of course, everyone wants a Standard Oil Trust stock, which seems to have all the important qualifications. Besides the five factors, though, collectors should also look for issued securities, which, since they contributed to the American system, are considered more valuable than unissued ones. "It's like having a checkbook you never signed," says Herzog. "They were never issued or used as a financial instrument."
Among the issued documents, adds Beach, there are some that were canceled by a stamp or hole punch, and still others that were uncanceled. The uncanceled securities, he says, which were scattered among the buyers, are generally considered rarer and more valuable.
After learning the ropes, you'll have to put yourself to the test. Every January, collectors flock to Strasburg, Pennsylvania, to attend the annual auction held by R.M. Smythe. "We're always sold out," Herzog says. Adds Teas: "Even when Pennsylvania was snowed in two years ago and the roads weren't cleared, the place was mobbed."
Each June, Smythe holds an annual auction of stocks, bonds and banknotes in Memphis. Winslow holds three mail-order auctions annually. And you can always call a dealer, obtain a catalog and simply make a purchase. LaBarre even has a new 30-minute video catalog. A series of six videos sells for $50.
After buying, it's smart to insure your valuable purchases. If framing, use museum-quality standards that include acid-free mat boards and paper, and UF3 Plexiglas that, Winslow says, "filters out ultraviolet rays that cause paper to fade." Also avoid placing your masterpiece in direct sunlight. If you're going to store them, acid-free Mylar holders are the optimum choice, according to experts at R.M. Smythe.
Hmmm...but what about all those not-so-valuable, unrare securities? Winslow, for one, specializes in using them to create sales incentives, promotional giveaways, invitations and corporate gifts for numerous companies, especially those in the financial industry. In fact, Winslow specializes in this area, and has worked with such companies as Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and Handelsblatt, a German financial publication. Some companies depict the certificates on calendars, while others frame them or use them as a combination business card and folder. "It sticks out in a person's mind more than a business card," Winslow adds. "You can buy hundreds of titles for $1 each--but they won't be the great companies of American history."
LaBarre points out that some European companies, especially those in Germany and Switzerland, make 12-month calendars using six actual stock certificates, not reproductions. The Europeans, he notes, tend to favor shares from U.S. companies, such as American Airlines, Atlantic Richfield, Howard Johnson, General Motors and Faberge cosmetics. "These are engraved modern American stocks bought at a modest price," he adds.
Which brings us back to Hogan, the railroad-stock collector. Ever the entrepreneur, Hogan loves collectible antique securities--but "being a marketing guy, I began to think about developing products for the certificates that weren't collectible," he says. "There are millions of 'common' certificates." His interest resulted in Vintage Securities, a company he created that finds new uses for old shares. Hogan bought hundreds of attractive, noncollectible shares and turned them into decorative gift items. They include desk-sized humidors with Russian marquetry, each of which features a decoupaged certificate on its top; a tea box bearing a share from A&P, otherwise known as the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.; and an elmwood cigar carrier that holds three cigars and bears a bond coupon.
Hogan's line also includes attractive cuff links and money clips, all made with securities, and all of which can be found at stores such as Nordstrom's. Hogan even packaged the accessories in small boxes covered with beautifully engraved securities. "I'm like Swift," says Hogan, referring to the premium pork purveyor. "I used everything but the oink."
Debbi J. Karpowicz is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.
George Washington Banked Here
While this article is primarily concerned with securities issued after 1792 and the development of the New York Stock Exchange, the question remains: Was anything ever issued before that? Ned Downing of Weston, Massachusetts, who recently spent $36,300 on one such share, has the answer--and the documents. A former Wall Street broker who now describes himself as an "antiquarian personal curator," Downing has a museum-quality collection of papers that financed the American Revolution--the securities that Alexander Hamilton referred to as "the price of liberty." Says Downing: "I look at the Revolutionary War as a series of financial instruments and ask, 'Why was it issued?'" he says. "The three classes of stock that Alexander Hamilton created and exchanged, to pay off the Revolutionary War debt at 100 cents on the dollar, were the first securities to trade on the New York Stock Exchange."
For example, Downing owns the first security used to finance the war, the "King Philip Bond" dated 1775 and engraved by Paul Revere. He also has many Continental Loan Office certificates, the first obligation of all the United States together, offered as prizes in the U.S. lottery of 1777 and then used as one of the primary means of financing George Washington's army. One of his most fascinating instruments is a bill of exchange from 1779 that paid interest in francs; it came about after Ben Franklin visited France's Louis XVI to ask for a loan to pay the interest on America's bonded debt, the Continental Loan Office certificates. "Our country's first securities market grew out of this bill of exchange," says Downing, a walking encyclopedia of American history, especially the incredible, little-known facts.
Recently, Downing shared his enthusiasm with financial types, when, last August, he held a by-invitation-only presentation on the origin of the American capital markets, at New York's Penn Club. It included a lecture, slide show and original document presentation.
Downing's unique collection of financial instruments clearly shows the progression and development of capital markets in the United States. "You'll never read this in a textbook," he adds. He only buys and sells entire collections to other collectors and, only after that, might sell a specific share. Downing's collection, he says, "forms a mosaic of a story you can't read anywhere. It's important to our national heritage and needs to be preserved intact."
Downing also owns bearer bonds that were issued in 1780 to finance the Revolutionary War--which have never been settled and, it is possible, may be cashed in. He didn't even realize it until a few years ago, when he bought a rare copy of Alexander Hamilton's 1795 report on public credit and learned that these bonds were "actual obligations of the U.S., with interest due perpetually," he says. When reading those words, "the hackles went up on the back of my neck," he says with a laugh.
Each dollar, at 5 percent for 214 years, would today be worth about $34,000, says Downing, who's done his homework. He claims that the uncanceled bonds are still valid, according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. At this point, it's up to the U.S. Treasury to make the final decision.
Upcoming R.M. Smythe Auctions
June 21, 1996: Memphis International Paper Money Show and Auction.
September 1996: Date and location to be announced.
Who to Call
Keith Hollender, The Scripophily Shop, London:
David Beach: (407) 657-7403
Ned Downing: (617) 239-8031
Bill Hogan, Vintage Securities: (617) 239-0950
Haley Garrison, Antique Stocks and Bonds:
(804) 220-3838; (800) 451-4504
George H. LaBarre Galleries: (603) 882-2411;
to order the video catalogs, call (800) 717-9529
R.M. Smythe & Co.: (212) 943-1880, (800) 622-1880.
Also the headquarters for the International Bond and Share Society. Its membership directory lists American and European dealers, books and magazines geared to scripophily.
Scott J. Winslow Assoc.: (603) 472-7040
Washington Historical Autograph and Certificate Organization (WHACO): George Teas, executive director, (703) 866-0175