But 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 Chantilly, Va.-based 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.
Among paper shares on Scripophily's most-wanted list: Playboy stock from the 1970s and '80s that featured a voluptuous engraving of a reclining centerfold.
Susan Platt, a Gold River, Calif., resident, has one. She bought it in the 1970s -- "as a joke gift" -- for her father, a longtime investor who hung it in the family's rec room.
"He loved it. He had lots of paper stock certificates," said Platt, "but none like that." She offered to share her certificate with The Bee, but worried that the nude centerfold might not be suitable for a family newspaper. (She was right.)
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," said Beck. "There really isn't any reason (for paper shares) other than nostalgia."
While paper certificates may be disappearing, there are ways to find them.
Sites like OneShare.com and GiveAShare.com let you buy a single share -- in paper form -- from big-name companies, from Harley-Davidson to Tiffany & Co.
San Francisco-based OneShare, founded in 1996 by a former bond broker, sells individual shares -- Disney is the all-time favorite -- based on the stock market's previous day closing price. For $100 and up, it'll frame the stock certificate with messages, such as recent Valentine's Day inscriptions: "I love you a 'latte' " with Starbucks shares or "No kiss is sweeter than yours!" for Hershey's Foods.
In a digital world, there's an undeniable appeal to paper stock certificates. UBS adviser Beck himself keeps framed paper shares of Pixar, the animated cartoon company that was bought by Disney, in his two kids' names.
And maybe there's a humble reminder in some of yesteryear's startup investments. Looking at his dad's $11 certificate for Gray Goose, the speculative startup flying machine, military retiree Walker chuckles: "That thing is such a laugh. It tells me I'm not the only dumb investor around."
--History: Scholars disagree on when the first trading of corporate stock started. Some say it was with the Dutch East India Company in 1602; others contend it started much earlier, in ancient Rome.
--Going paperless: In the late 1960s, a paperwork crisis hit the New York Stock Exchange as trading volume reached 12 million shares a day. Overloaded clerks, processing paper stock certificates and checks, couldn't keep up with the backlog, requiring the NYSE to shut down for certain periods every week. In the mid-1970s, faster computers and data-processing tools began the evolution to electronic trading. Starting in the 1980s, the NYSE, the U.S. Treasury and others began holding paper certificates in central depositories and doing "book-entry" accounting, where no paper trades hands.
--Today: As of 2009, the federal government and all states no longer require publicly traded companies to issue paper stock certificates. Most companies still issue them if requested. In 2005, the cost of issuing, processing, replacing and storing paper certificates was estimated at $250 million a year, according to a study by the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., a clearinghouse for electronic transactions.
--Buying paper: Even if a company offers paper shares, brokerages charge as much as $500 to handle them. To obtain a paper share at no charge, contact the company's transfer agent (listed on the company's annual report or website). Or ask your broker to purchase stock in "direct registration" in your name (there may be a fee).
--Figuring value: To check if a defunct company's paper certificate holds any value, contact the stock's transfer agent, your broker or the secretary of state's office where the company was located.
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