Old stock certificates may still have value

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Joyce B. Siegel

“No value,” my stockbroker said to me. “You might just as well use ‘em for wallpaper. Just toss them.” He was talking about the pile of stock certificates my husband and I found more than 20 years ago when we were cleaning out my father-in-law’s house.

This was just after I’d found a stash of mint condition U.S. postage stamp blocks I’d put aside, hoping one day they’d be valuable. I took them to a philately store for evaluation. “Lick ‘em and stick ‘em,” the stamp expert said. “They are only worth the face value.”

Lick ‘em and stick ‘em is just what I did. Every letter I sent out was a display of the history of American postage stamps. So I didn’t find any amazing treasures there.

After my disappointment with the stamps, I had a hard time accepting that the stock certificates were worthless. The only way I could research the companies that I was told were “belly up” was through my broker and some publications on company history he provided, so I had to accept his judgment. We didn’t have computer search engines back then.

But as certain as he was that the stocks were worthless, I couldn’t bear to throw them away. They were attractive products in their own right, carefully engraved work of craftsmen. I filed them away. After all, they didn’t take up much space.

Tracking down old companies

Then, a few years ago, traveling on Amtrak between D.C. and New York, I looked up from a book I was reading. It was a second’s worth of serendipity.

There, somewhere in New Jersey, were newly painted oil tanks clearly labeled Meenan Oil. Wait a sec! I had a stock certificate for several thousand shares of Meenan Oil, but I was told the company was defunct.

By the time this happened, I had a computer and access to online search engines. As soon as I got home I hunted for Meenan, and sure enough, it was still in existence. It had simply gone from a public to a privately held company.

I contacted the company’s finance officer at its Long Island New York headquarters. He told me a fund had been established to pay off old stockholders. My husband sent in the necessary paperwork and we received a check for several thousand dollars.

Inspired, I took out the pile of my father-in-law’s “valueless” stocks and started looking into what had happened to the companies whose shares were supposed to be worthless. I found four more that had gone from publicly held to privately held. We reaped a few thousand dollars more.

Last resort — collectors

Two companies absolutely no longer existed, but there were two small businesses with the exact name as the defunct companies. Both small business owners were intrigued and asked if they could buy the stock certificate to display in their offices. No problem, I said. We earned $100 more.

If you have old stock certificates you may have the same luck. You may have some certificates of interest to collectors.

There are businesses that buy and sell old stock certificates, and individuals hawking them on eBay, Amazon, etc. The buying, selling, displaying and collecting of old stock certificates is called scripophily. Does that make me a scripophilist?

Why do these old certificates fascinate so many people? For starters, just as I found out with my Meenan moment, they may actually have some retained value. Some currently profitable companies were once organized under different names, but the old certificates are still valid.

Xerox, for instance, was first called Haloid, then Haloid Xerox and in the 1960s, it became just plain Xerox. If you had a share of Haloid and held on to it, you’d find it’s now worth a bundle.

American Oil Company became AMOCO and then was bought by BP. Who knows what that’s worth these days?

Some certificates may have some special, historic value, representing an especially interesting aspect of our nation’s past. Some may be signed by an “important” person like J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, Eastman of Eastman Kodak or Henry Ford. Who knows?  Some are valuable because of the quality of the engraving.

Gone are the days when stock certificates are held in “bearer form” by individual investors. Now they’re in electronic form and held “in street name” on brokers’ computers. The use of paper stocks ended around the 1990s. 

Old stock certificates are getting increasingly rare, so while they may have no redeemable value as a security, they may have value to collectors (as long as they’re in pretty good condition). Either way, it may be fun — and worth a little detective work to find out if you have some treasures….or just wallpaper.

Joyce B. Siegel is a freelance writer in N. Bethesda, Md.