Scanning Around With Gene: The Art of Scripophily

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I recently came across a terrific book on eBay called The Art of the Market: Two Centuries of American Business as Seen Through Its Stock Certificates by Bob Tamarkin and Les Krantz. It’s a well-designed, well-printed beautiful coffee-table style book that does a great job reviewing the history of stock certificates, and presents many samples of these quickly disappearing remnants of publically traded companies. The book appears to be out of print, but you can still find new and used copies on Amazon and elsewhere.

The book gave me the excuse to take a look at stock certificates, and I’ve supplemented images from the book with others I’ve collected from around the Web and elsewhere. Stock certificates have become very collectible – the field is referred to as Scripophily and those who collect them Scipophilists. In the Tamarkin and Krantz book, you’ll not only find an interesting history of the actual certificates, but an impressive review of American business throughout several centuries. Click on any image for a larger version.

Scripophily was dreamed up as a word through a contest held in 1976 by the Financial Times of London – it is from “Scrip”, an ownership right, and “philos,” love. The field took off in the late 1970s and has been gaining in popularity ever since.

Since most stock certificates are destroyed due to SEC regulations, they are often rare, increasing the value and collectability. The nation’s oldest surviving stock certificate is from the Bank of North America, dated June 7, 1783.

The interesting artistry of stock certificates comes from both a desire of companies to have something substantial represent ownership of the company, and the need for complex designs that are difficult to counterfeit.

Tamarkin and Krantz do a terrific job of explaining the different types of printing – most early stock certificates are engraved, a difficult printing process whereby images are carved in copper or steel. Engravers were (and still are) a rare breed with both highly technical and artistic talents.

The ornate borders on these certificates are thanks to a device called a geometric lathe, which cut fine lines in metal in repeatable, complicated patterns, making forgery very difficult, though it certainly did happen.

The American Banknote Company, which still exists today, was the largest producer of stock certificates and also once printed American currency and postage stamps. The history of that company is, in itself, an interesting read.

Sadly, stock certificates are quickly becoming a thing of the past – it is no longer required that companies produce them as most trades are now electronic. But some, such as the Walt Disney Company, still do and will send stockholders their actual certificates on request.

I took a look at some modern stock certificates for companies like Google, Dell and others, and, unfortunately, they don’t have the charm and artistry of the older certificates. Part of the interest in historical stock certificates is the choice of imagery used to depict the company.

I’m a sucker for the type designs more than anything else on these old certificates, and it’s sad to see them go. But there are plenty still around and not all of them are expensive to collect. You can find many examples at sites such as scipophily.com and learn more about the field by visiting the Professional Scripophily Trading Association. And definitely check out “The Art of the Market,” which is a great read and very inspirational if you like this style of design.

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