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Introduction to Scripophily

Scripophily is the hobby of collecting “scrip,” such as securities, documents and ephemera issued by firms and governments in the past. The vast majority of scrip is in the form of old stocks and bonds issued by defunct companies (and even defunct government regimes). Usually these securities have no value as financial claims, though they may have considerable value for their artistic merit or historical interest. I enjoy collecting scrip for two reasons:

  • Artwork: Many securities feature highly intricate artwork, truly masterpieces of engravers’ skill. The use of color, size, detail, vignettes (or pictures), and general embellishment often lend signals about what the issuer was (or hoped to be). Usually these securities are simply nice to look at.
  • Historical interest: The securities often tell a story about mismanagement, sharp market reverses, failed technology, etc. They can be excellent teaching devices and are at least reminders about the way things can go wrong. Any history buff will enjoy scrip for the ties to the past.

Relatively little has been published about the collection of scrip; but for a place to start, see Keith Hollender’s Scripophily: Collecting Bonds and Stock Certificates Facts on File, 1983, (ISBN 0-87196-625-5).

There are numerous dealers in scrip who send out richly illustrated catalogues—I highly recommend ordering a couple of catalogues simply to see what is in the market. See the list of websites for collectors for the coordinates of dealers. Items range from $10 at the low end to several thousand dollars at the high end. Here are four considerations to guide your collecting of scrip:

  1. Know who you are. Are you a manic collector/investor, or are you a casual buyer? I like to look at my collection, so I simply stop buying when I run out of wall space to display items. Very serious collectors tie up thousands of dollars in scrip, and need to keep their most valuable items safe and out of the light of day—that’s not my cup of tea, though I can understand the appeal of this kind of collecting.
  2. Find a theme. It makes sense to build a collection that has some coherence. Mining shares, banks, transportation companies, auto manufacturers, are all examples of themes of coherence. We have all strayed from our themes from time to time, but mine is major financial fiascos (see the list of my favorites.)
  3. Do you like looking at it? This may matter less to serious investors and collectors, who choose more to build a collection than to admire it. But if you are in my league, then color, artwork, and the little picture (or “vignette”) will matter greatly.
  4. Does it have an interesting story? Unknown companies issued the vast bulk of available scrip. With some digging in State Corporation Offices we might learn a little about these firms. But in general, they will remain ciphers. Those that have interesting stories behind them might be a good place to start collecting because it gives you a basis for describing your acquisitions.
  5. Does it have a famous signature? You can buy securities bearing some really famous names from business history: J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, most of the railroad “robber barons,” and so on. Since autograph collectors pursue these special securities, you should expect to have to pay a real premium for paper bearing a famous signature.
  6. What is its physical quality? Look for tears, mold, and fading. While some of this is unavoidable, try to acquire only good physical specimens. Some day you (or your heirs) will liquidate your collection; it will be easier to sell if the paper is in good condition. Good dealers will rate the scrip on the basis of quality and significance; these ratings are one place to start in judging whether you might want to buy a particular item.