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What Is an 82-Year-Old Stock Certificate Worth?

Motley Fool Staff, The Motley Fool

In the modern world of digital investing, it's easy to forget that shares of stock used to be tangible: Companies issued paper stock certificates, possession of which proved that you, for example, owned 100 shares of the American Cotton Oil Company. As such, they had real value. But do they still?

In this mailbag segment from the Rule Breaker Investing podcast, listener Bill Halsley has stumbled across a circa-1937 Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company stock certificate that once belonged to his great-uncle. The company itself was bought long ago by Union Pacific. But does the certificate still have value? To answer, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner has recruited Motley Fool Director of Small Cap Research Bill Mann, who will explain why that stock may no longer be...well, stock, but how it could be art.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 27, 2019.

David Gardner: Bill Halsley's question, he said: "Dear David, This is short. This belonged to my great-uncle. I've discovered this company was eventually sold to Union Pacific. I don't know what to do with it." Bill includes a picture of a stock certificate. The company is Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company. Like a lot of these certificates, this is a beautiful piece of art.

Bill Mann: It's gorgeous! Yes. This is from the 1930s -- 1937 is when it was executed. So, obviously, the company doesn't exist anymore. But there are plenty of places where this stock certificate itself, particularly if it's in good condition, could net Bill a lot of money.

Gardner: Is that right?

Mann: I would take it to any coin and stamp store. One of the things that they also will do is, they will deal in old certificates. It's called scripophily.

Gardner: S-C-R-I-P-O-P-H-I-L-Y?

Mann: Yeah. Scripophily.

Gardner: Dot-com?

Mann: Yeah, scripophily.com. It's the collection of stock certificates. I actually recently on scripophily.com bought a share certificate just like this from my grandfather's company, which was called Cannon Mills, which is a textile company from Kannapolis, North Carolina. So yes, I can speak to this both as someone who loves collecting these kinds of things and just loves old stock certificates; but also, as someone who has recently been on the other side of this transaction.

Gardner: That is a great reminder, because truly, as I read Bill's question -- first of all, I haven't had this experience, so I was like, "I have to have an expert in from The Motley Fool," and we got Bill Mann this week, which is awesome. But I was just thinking: "Maybe Union Pacific paid something for this company that's decent. Union Pacific is still around. Maybe this is worth a lot of money." But you're pointing out that whether or not that's true -- and it might be -- the artwork itself, and collectors, there's a whole market out there for these kinds of certificates.

Mann: Yeah. There's something called escheat rules. Probably, if there's been sitting around -- what escheat is, it says that after a period of time, the company might consider the shares abandoned. He should absolutely check with Union Pacific. I'm guessing that they have long ago struck these shares from the register.

Gardner: I see. So you're not going to find out that you're a millionaire.

Mann: You could!

Gardner: This is 1937. We're 82 years later right now. So, probably there's no stock market value to this. You can't claim 1% ownership of Union Pacific at this point.

Mann: Highly unlikely. But it's worth checking. Union Pacific might want to get their hands on this stock certificate. They might think that that's a pretty cool thing. But it would be fabulous. I hope Bill lets us know what happens. But, yeah, because of the escheat rules, I think of this as what a collector would do with it. I guarantee you that's not worth zero.

Gardner: Really cool! Last question for you, Bill, before I let you go. I'm not asking you how much you paid to buy that certificate. But typically, I'm sure a lot of us are wondering, what is the typical price for a handsome piece of art and actual stock certificate from 80 years ago? Are these $500? $1,000? Are we talking a lot more than that, or less?

Mann: It certainly can be. What Bill has in his hands is something that's very special, because there are railroad collectors. Railroads and power companies and things like that, but especially the railroads. The other one that tends to be worth a lot is old Disney certificates. They can be upwards of $500. I'm really curious to know what comes of this.

Bill Mann has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. David Gardner owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.