In their glory days, paper stock certificates were mini artworks, embellished with engraved images of eagles, cherubs, Gold Rush miners and sheaves of wheat. Or even sexy Playboy centerfolds.
Today, they’re financial-document dinosaurs, going the paperless way of U.S. Savings Bonds and Social Security checks. In an era of instant electronic stock trading, getting a paper stock certificate is downright difficult.
“It’s a bygone era,” said Cameron Beck, investment adviser with UBS Financial Services in Sacramento, Calif., who said it’s been more than 10 years since a client even asked for a paper certificate.
And when clients do ask, companies like UBS and Charles Schwab charge $500 to handle the transaction.
While most of Wall Street’s publicly traded companies will issue paper shares if asked, more than 420 companies — Apple, Chevron, Intel and Visa — no longer do. According to the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., stock trading could be virtually paper-free in three to five years.
But even as paper certificates disappear from the financial world, they live on as specialty gifts and collectibles, whether for sentimental, artistic or history-laden reasons.
Many old certificates are family treasures, hearkening to a time when the buyer’s name was inked in handwritten flourishes and shares cost as little as 10 cents each.
Bettie Tsuda keeps a dilapidated box of 50 paper stock certificates that her grandfather and other immigrant Japanese farmers received for investing with Producers Free Market Inc., a 1930s Sacramento market where her family sold vegetables.
Purchased in pre-World War II years before many Japanese families were shipped off to internment camps, the shares hold “both sentimental family value and historical value,” Tsuda said.
And even with a long-dead company, there can be collector value in many old stock certificates.
Websites like Scripophily.com and OldStocks.com buy and sell vintage stock and bond certificates. Collectors value them for their artwork, historical significance, personal company connections or famous signatures, said Bob Kerstein, CEO of Scripophily.com. The highest price paid on Scripophily: $125,000 for an 1880s Standard Oil Co. certificate signed by John D. Rockefeller. Other rarities include Civil War-era bonds issued by the Confederacy.
While some lament the disappearing paper stock certificate, brokers and industry experts say trading them is problematic and expensive. There’s the risk of losing them in a fire, flood or theft; long-term storage and safety concerns; delays in buying and selling paper shares, which must be authenticated and physically transferred between buyer and seller.
“Even longtime investors and older clients understand the impracticality,” Beck said. “There really isn’t any reason [for paper shares] other than nostalgia.”