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Ode to the Stock Certificate

Stock Certificates Have Gone from Parchment to Digital Bits

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To someone under forty, a share of stock is just a digital bit of information, stored on a broker's server. And If you were to ask them what a stock "certificate" was, chances are you would probably just receive a blank state that says "I have no idea what you are talking about pops."  I myself have been buying and selling stocks since 1985 and I've never seen a physical share of stock in my life.

But the history of the stock certificate is full of interesting facts.

1. A Rembrandt from IBM

A stock certificate from 1903
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Stock certificates used to be the physical proof that you owned shares of a company and were a sign of prestige, so much so that many certificates were made with fancy designs and ornate engravings, often resembling artwork.

2. Stock Certificates for Kids

This was definitely the case with shares of the Disney Corporation which featured full color illustrations of some of the company's most famous characters.  It was not uncommon for parents to buy their children a single share of the company's stock in order to frame it and put it on display next to their toys and stuffed animals.

3. I Love What You've Done With This Room

During the years following the great stock market crash of 1929 it was common practice for shareholders of now defunct public companies to wallpaper a room of their house with worthless stock certificates as a perverse tribute to lost wealth.

4. A Legal Type of Currency

At one time the process for printing up a stock certificate was as guarded and secretive as printing currency because in a sense it was a currency in and of itself.  And for this reason there were only three companies in the United States that were authorized to print stock certificates of publicly held companies.

5. Four Hundred Years of History

Vereinigte_Ostindische_Compagnie_bond.jpg

In 2010, the oldest surviving stock certificate was found by a history student from Utrecht University who was working on an unrelated research project.  The certificate was made out of parchment paper and was printed by hand with ink and quill.  It dates from 1606 and was issued by the Dutch East Indies Company which was also the first company ever to issue stock.

6. Scripo What?

If you find an old stock certificate among a deceased relatives belongings or in an old antique store it probably doesn't have any intrinsic value.  The company that issued it is by best bets long gone.

However, the certificate itself may have some collectible value.  

Scriptophily is the pursuit or hobby of collecting old stock certificates and there is an active community of collectors who will buy worthless certs just for their collectibility. 

Is That Stock Certificate Really Worthless

Of course the most interesting thing about an old stock certificate is the chance -- no matter how far fetched -- that it might actually be worth something intrinsically. If you find an old cert the first thing you want to do is determine if the company who issued it still exists. Depending on how old it is, the issuing company might have been bought out; sometimes numerous times. That doesn't mean the the stock is worthless, just that you will have to do a bit more homework to track it's status down. Next you want to contact the transfer agent listed on the cert and if that doesn't work, contract the Secretary of State of the state it was issue in. Who knows, that "worthless" certificate just might be worth something.

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