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Cashing in on collectible stock and bond certificates

A trip to the attic or an examination of a recently deceased loved one's safe-deposit box often results in nostalgia as you rummage through items that you haven't seen in years -- or perhaps never knew existed.

But sometimes among the old documents, photographs and junk is the stuff dreams are made of -- a chance to become rich. Well, at least a chance to give your bank account a little boost.

Would you know your chance if you saw it?

Lynne Callison of Fort Wayne, Ind., didn't.

Standard Oil  
Callison was going through her father's safe-deposit box after he died when she found a certificate for 14 shares of stock in a Canadian company, Scurry Rainbow Oil. That was in 1996. Fortunately, Callison didn't toss it out like a lot of people apparently do, but she forgot about it until last year.

"I decided to see what I could find out about Scurry. I thought maybe they're worth a zillion dollars," says Callison. "On the back of the certificate were phone numbers of Canadian banks. I called, and no one in Canada knew anything about it. I even called my own broker, and he couldn't find out anything about Scurry."

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Callison hooked up with an Arizona company called Stock Search International, which, after considerable research, learned that Scurry Rainbow had been bought out and that those 14 shares of stock were now worth about $3,000. Not a bad take for a little perseverance.

"I was thrilled beyond words," says Callison. "You always hear people find paintings in their attics that are worth a lot of money. This wasn't like that, but it was good."


What's in your attic?
What should you do if you find an old stock or bond certificate?

Experts say you're much less likely to find an old bond certificate because they have a specified time limit -- there's a date when people get their money back. However, if you do find one, bring it to a bank if it's a savings bond. If it's a corporate or municipal bond, a broker can handle the transaction for you.

Some bond certificates, especially old war bonds, are valuable as collectibles -- but not nearly as often as stock certificates. Most companies that evaluate stock certificates as collectibles can also tell you if a bond certificate has value beyond its worth as a security.

Since there's no time limit for holding a stock, its value as a security can be anything. Many people consider stocks long-term investments and hold them for years hoping they will continue to appreciate in value. But even if a company goes belly up, its certificate may have value as a collectible. In fact, sometimes a company that's still in business will have certificates that are worth more as a collectible than as a security.


The early Playboy stock certificates are an example.

When Playboy stock was first issued in 1971, the certificate was signed by Hugh Hefner and had a vignette of a naked Playboy centerfold. Many people bought one share as a collector's item. Times change and on later issues of the certificate the formerly naked woman has found some clothes.

Those early certificates sell for about $275. Compare that to a share of Playboy stock, which goes for less than $13. Even the "clothed" certificate sells on the collectors market for $42.50. If you found one share of either certificate, you'd do better selling it on the collectors' market than selling it as a security.

There's a third way old stock certificates may be valuable. If you bought the stock, or even if you inherited it and were given a stepped-up cost basis, you could be entitled to declare a loss when you file your income tax if the stock no longer has any worth as a security.

If you find an old stock certificate, and you've never heard of the company, see if the company still exists. Yahoo, AOL, Hoover's -- any number of financial Web sites give you a way to plug in a company name and get current financial data.

You could consult with a stockbroker. But remember, they're not researchers and, as in Lynne Callison's case, they don't always come up with the right answer.

If your search of financial sites comes up empty, it only means you have to do a little more work; it doesn't mean the certificate is worthless. Many companies are bought out or merge, or simply change names.

If that's the case, the state that incorporated the company should be able to help you track that information. The certificate shows where the company was incorporated. Call the corporation commission in that state. Every state has a Web site -- the corporation commission should be included in the government listings. Be aware, there may be a charge for research, and they won't be able to tell you if the certificate is worth anything.


Your local public library is another good source for tracking down information on old companies. Of course, it's best if your library has someone who is familiar with this type of search. If not, you may want to try the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. It has seven full-time librarians who are well versed in researching old stock certificates.

"It's something that we got questions on occasionally," says librarian John Damond. "We were trying to come up with ideas to enhance our Web presence and services and this seemed like a good idea. The response has been overwhelming.

"If the company doesn't exist, we have sources that chart the course of corporate capital history. It'll say it merged and changed its name or the charter was forfeited due to lack of payment of fees or taxes," says Damond.

The Pratt was founded in the 1880s and may have more resources than some newer libraries. Searches are free, but be prepared to mail or fax a copy of your certificates.

Another thing to check when it comes to old certificates is the company may have split its stock many times over the years. If a company still exists, that certificate for 100 shares of stock may be worth thousands of shares.

Finding collectible value
Whether or not the certificate is worth anything as a security, you should check to see if the certificate itself has value as a collector's item. The Scripophily.com Web site will let you search its database. But you might also want to check with a couple other places just to be sure.

Pierre Bonneau, CEO of Tucson, Ariz.-based Stock Search International, the place that tracked down Lynne Callison's certificate, says anything issued in the 1880s -- especially railroad, manufacturing and oil companies -- is probably valuable.

"The most expensive collectible stock to date sold for $136,000," says Bonneau. "It was a share of Standard Oil Trust signed three times by John D. Rockefeller. He signed it because it was issued to him, signed it as director and then endorsed it."

Not everything from that era is quite as valuable, but many certificates will still fatten your bank account.

American Express  

"A one-share certificate of American Express from the 1860s signed by founders Henry Wells and James Fargo is now worth about $1,000," says Bonneau. "American Express was an express company -- a stagecoach business on the East Coast. They transferred funds, gold bullion and IOUs. Wells and Fargo later started Wells Fargo on the West Coast doing the same thing."

Another place that can tell you if a certificate has collector value is R. M. Smythe in New York. Both Smythe and Stock Search International will charge a fee, usually under $100, to research a certificate. If the stock still has security value, an additional commission may be charged.

A certificate doesn't have to be old to have worth as a collectible, according to Bonneau.

"Some of the now infamous dot.coms have collectible value depending on how big the splash was. Some sold for as much as $500 on Ebay shortly after their demise. The collectors' market gets inspired when something goes wrong."

-- Posted: Oct. 30, 2001




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