FAQ: How to start collecting

First steps

The best overall advice to a new collector is – be patient! Do not rush into buying a large quantity without some idea of what sort of collection you want to build. Otherwise you may find yourself holding an accumulation of miscellaneous certificates, rather like a child’s stamp collection, with bits and pieces of everything. This will not give a lot of pleasure or satisfaction, nor will it prove a good investment.

It is vital to learn about the subject, get in touch with dealers, join a society, read books and magazines, talk to other collectors, look at old auction catalogues, buy just a few pieces. Then, with your preferences well defined, you can start building a collection tailor-made to your interests and budget. Collectors will be happy to discuss this with you. So will a good dealer; while he would doubtless like you to be a customer, he will be willing to take a long term view. Most new collectors soon see the wisdom of choosing a theme to collect. The range of the themes is almost endless, since bonds and shares reflect almost every aspect of economic history.

Collecting themes

Many collectors favour themes such as railways, autos or mining. These offer a very wide range of material, and some further specialisation is needed. In the case of railways, collectors often choose their own country or region. Autos are often collected by country or date. Mining collectors choose either their country/region or a type of mining – gold, diamonds, coal, etc. The smaller fields – oil, tobacco, tramways, textiles, engineering, electricity, water, coffee & tea, and a hundred others – are small enough for a collector to build a world-wide collection.

Popular specific themes include pre-1800 (fascinating but expensive, and only partly catalogued), and Confederates (bonds issued by the Confederate States in the American Civil War – mostly inexpensive, and well catalogued). Some collectors collect only shares, excluding bonds completely. Others collect only the bonds of national/state/city Governments, especially those of Imperial China or Tsarist Russia. Some buy only an art style, such as Art Nouveau or Art Deco, or the work of a well known printer, such as Waterlow of London or the American Bank Note Company. Some collectors want autographs of famous people on certificates – often found on U.S. shares and sometimes on European pieces also, and including businessmen such as Wells and Fargo, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, J.P.Morgan and the Rothschilds as well as those famous in other fields such as Empress Maria Theresa and Johanne von Goethe.

Art and Design

The earliest bonds and shares were handwritten documents, of totally plain design, relying on signatures and seals to deter forgers. However, it did not take long for printed decoration to appear, usually in the simple form of a coat-of-arms. By the middle of the 18th century extremely decorative shares were appearing, primarily from Spain, and today the design and the quality of the engraving on these shares ensures a steady demand from collectors.

Early U.S. stocks and bonds were plain; the earliest known decorated American share dates from 1792, showing a horse-drawn wagon. Mining shares often show mines and scenes of miners at work, but often these are standard printers’ blocks used by many companies, these were standard scenes used by many mines, rather then views of that companies own mine; the same often applied to oil and plantation companies – one rubber plantation looks much like the next! Railway companies showed maps of their route network. The shares of new companies might show optimistic views of the company’s future assets, which probably never came into existence!

The use of colour and imagination in the 19th century, varied greatly between countries. The most exuberant pieces were from continental Europe, where prominent artists were invited to produce work of real artistic merit, with striking images and strong colours. The U.K. was far more restrained, with little interest in illustrations on certificates, or in using more than a single colour. The U.S.A. produced many very decorative bonds and shares, often superbly engraved. The range of fine engraved vignettes, especially of trains, but also of shipping, streetcars, autos, industrial scenes, and much else, has led some collectors to concentrate just on those vignettes.

Some collectors specialise in an art style – popular styles include the soft, flowery and very decorative Art Nouveau (or Jugendstil) of the period around 1900, and the hard, striking, striking Art Deco of the 1920s. Well-known designers (e.g. Mucha or Catenacci) are followed by some.

An experienced scripophilist can make a fairly accurate guess as to the date of a bond or share from the design, although the evolution was mostly slow and steady. The design often helps – A primitive locomotive of steamship suggests an early date. European shares of the mid-19th century used very small illustrations, often set in a border of classical or rococo themes – rosettes, urns, cherubs, etc. There are many such pointers.


A signature of a famous person on a certificate greatly enhances its interest. Indeed, there are many collectors who collect nothing other than pieces with important autographs on them, and dealers and auction houses cater specifically for this interest. A signature on the face of the certificate is usually that of an officer of the company. Trustees often signed on the back of a bond, especially American company bonds. A signature on the back of a share will normally be that of the holder of the certificate, authorising a transfer to a buyer.The most important field for autographs is American material, where pieces with the signatures of financiers such as Commodore Vanderbilt, John D.Rockefeller, J.J.Astor, Robert Morris, J.P.Morgan, or Wells and Fargo of stage-coach fame, and the great pioneers of the railroad age, are much sought after. There are also European and other pieces with very desirable signatures on them, such as the Rothschilds and various Kings and Emperors.
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