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Scripophily: Collecting Obsolete Stocks and Bonds for Art and History

by Anne Gilbert (09/20/12).

A stock certificate for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, along with photos of a wireless telegraph station and Marconi himself, makes for a nice collectible set of interest to early radio collectors and scripophillacs—people who collect obsolete stocks and bonds.

Over the years, stocks and bonds have been issued by companies that have failed or simply gone out of business. Because they were considered worthless, many of these cancelled financial documents were destroyed and shredded by banks. Often kept in safety boxes and bank vaults by private owners, they were usually tossed out or forgotten. Those that have survived have been born again as an exciting collectible known as scripophily and sold by specialty dealers, not only in America but around the world. Those who collect them are referred to as scripophillacs. By collectors they are considered as much of an investment as they were when originally issued.

In April of 1978, the New York Times started a contest to find a good name for the art collecting stocks and bonds. In May of that year, the final winning name chosen was scropophily. It was a derivation of the English word “script” for shares and the Greek word “philein” meaning to love.

Serious collecting began around 1978 in England, Germany and other European countries as a hobby. Up until 1990, dealers and collectors were the driving force in those countries. Since then, the demand has become stronger in the U.S.

Surprisingly, some bonds and promissory notes dating back to the American Colonies have not only survived, but are priced from $250 to $700. These bonds were issued to finance the American Revolution. A State of Massachusetts Bay bond dating to 1780 can cost $650. It has an interesting bottom border with the words “DEATH TO COUNTERFEIT THIS” written into the design.

A Massachusetts Bay Bond, issued in 1780. It has a value of around $650. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

“History buffs look not only for the historical significance of a stock or bond, but the signatures on them,” according to George LaBarre, the premier American dealer of scripophily. He points out that one early stock signed by the company president, Robert Morris, an American merchant and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation and the United States Constitution. Later he was known as the “Financier of the Revolution,” because of his role in financing the American side in the Revolutionary War. It currently sells for $1,200.

In 1980, La Barre discovered what was to become his collecting passion and full-time occupation. “When I first set eyes on a large group of Boston, Hartford & Erie Rail Road bonds I was hooked.” It was the beautiful engraving, including superb color, graphics and many rows of coupons all with a train vignette that caught his eye. He turned his attention away from being a collectibles dealer to what he saw as a new, serious collecting category. That decision grew to be the largest inventory of collectible stocks and bonds in the world; more than six million pieces.

A Confederate States of America bond from the Civil War depicting a soldier in front of tent. Priced at $300. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

“Every certificate offers a history of the company, whether they were successful or they failed,” says LaBarre. Technically, the failed ones were just worthless pieces of paper. The Confederate Civil War bonds are a good example of an historical failure.

The growth of America geographically can be traced on stocks depicting the Westward expansion from the depictions of gold mining to the buffalo that roamed the Great Plains and sheep ranching. They are referred to as “territorial” stocks.

A stock certificate for the Cherokee Gold Mining Company in California from the 1880s. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

A stock certificate for 10 shares of the Western Development Company issued in 1910. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

Wonderful example of lithography on a late 19th century, State of Wyoming bank note. The note was unissued. A current price is $40.

The categories and specialties often overlaps when people buy obsolete stocks and bonds, as autograph collectors will search the signature lines for the John Hancocks of captains of industry. Among the most sought-after signatures are Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller. It was the custom before the 1950s for certificates to be legally signed by an officer of the company, such as Rockefeller, Edison or J. Pierpont Morgan. However, many were printed in facsimile or signed by clerks. Currently, one of the most valuable stocks is an example from the New York and Pennsylvania Blue Stone Company, issued 1870, and signed by James Fisk, Jr. Fisk, a financier and infamous “wheeler-dealer,” was also known as “Diamond Jim.” One of these stock certificates is valued at $20,000.

One of the most valuable stocks today is from the New York and Pennsylvania Blue Stone Company, issued 1870, and signed by James “Diamond Jim” Fisk, Jr. One of these stock certificates is valued at $20,000. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

Another stock that would be collected by autograph enthusiasts: a certificate for Edison Phonograph Works stock, signed by Thomas A. Edison. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

Beautiful graphics of early inventions, such as telegraphing (1870s), are popular with collectors. Around 1910, as the aviation business was in its infancy, those certificates pictured interesting vignettes of aircraft.

Circus fans and toy collectors will probably be on the lookout for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey stocks, and toy companies such as Lionel, for their illustrations.

A stock certificate from the Ringling Bros. – Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. is one of the more colorful stocks to be found. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

A Lionel Train stock certificate would be interesting to scripophillacs and model train hobbiests. (George H. LaBarre Galleries Inc., Hollis, N.H.)

Some collectors look for specific art styles, such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Especially appealing are those authenticated as being designed by such famed graphic artists as Alphonse Mucha in the Art Nouveau style.

A growing category are countries that have had regime changes, such as Imperial China or Tsarist Russia. Currently, popular is currency with a portrait of Saddam Hussein.

Anne Gilbert is the author of a nationally self-syndicated antiques column “The Antique Detective,” the author of nine books on antiques and art, and a professional appraiser specializing in original illustrations and original political cartoons. Her early columns and feature stories are archived in Chicago’s Newberry Library section of “Outstanding Pioneer Women Journalists of the Midwest.” As an advocate for abused dogs, she has written her first novel, “Mayor of the Dog Park,” an e-Kindle book. You can e-mail Anne at Antique2@bellsouth.net.

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2 Responses to “Scripophily: Collecting Obsolete Stocks and Bonds for Art and History”

  1. Glenda Hanson says:

    I have some old stocks. What is the best way to determine whether or not the company is still in business and what their worth might be?

  2. I have a bunch from a great, great aunt,in California. (They had all been found to “have no value” as stocks, back in about 1973.) How do I find a collector, who might be interested in them?

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