Collectible Stocks and Bonds from North American Railroads     by Terry Cox

A guidebook and catalog of prices
(I do NOT buy or sell certificates on this website)

Search this website for information about collecting stocks and bonds.

Search

Search the Coxrail database for descriptions of 23,700+ certificates from over 7,400 North American railroad companies.

Autographs

For those of you interested in certificates whose primary value resides in autographs, please see my list of all known autographs on railroad certificates. Please read my criteria for listing autographs.

General background

Autograph collecting is a separate hobby that overlaps the stock and bond hobby. Many celebrities signed certificates, either as stockholders, bondholders or as individuals connected with railroad companies. Autographs can be important for their historical significance and their speculative possibilities.

Do your research

Newcomers often share the misconception that autographs represent excellent opportunities to "get rich quick." A warning is in order.

You cannot stumble into the autograph hobby and reasonably expect to win. Autograph collecting takes careful research. It takes a clear understanding of the market. Without both (and without a modicum of luck), speculation in autographs represents a terrific opportunity to waste a lot of money.

High-class autographs

Autographs that show the greatest demand among advanced collectors are those of major industrialists (Rockefeller, Carnegie), major investors (Hetty Green), legendary railroaders (Commodore Vanderbilt), and major historical figures (Nathan Bedford Forrest). Signatures of that caliber routinely attract prices in the thousands of dollars. At that level of collecting, all speculative value is in the autographs. The values of certificates on which they appear, even rare certificates, are immaterial.

Important signatures often show price increases over time and (according to fans of that hobby) can beat inflation by a few percent per year. Even if true, please understand that "beating inflation by a few percent per year" does not necessarily guarantee a reliable investment.

Autographs of medium importance

Down the ladder of importance are signatures of prominent railroaders (Jay Gould, Harriman, Huntington, etc.), second generation Vanderbilts, important industrialists (Morgan, DuPont, and Mellon), politicians (Fillmore), and prominent Civil War military figures (Burnside.)

Those people were important Americans, but collectors usually pay $200 to $1,000 each for their signatures. Their popularity is somewhat fickle. They are in a different class than the previous group. Like the previous group, their signatures are worth more than the certificates they grace, but the rarity of underlying certificates does affect values.

Autographs of less importance

In less demand are signatures of minor figures. This group includes autographs from people like Cassatt, Clews, Depew, Grow, and Scott. These people were important to their companies. Many were well known, even famous, in their time. Still, they had limited impact on the nation as a whole. This group also includes most Civil War generals.

At this level of collecting, you can discern the values of autographs separate from the values of certificates. Expect to pay $5 to $100 for autographs from this group plus the value of certificates on which they appear. Buy autographs from this group carefully. Always consider possible resale. (Just because you are enticed to buy such autographs does not guarantee similar interest in the future.) When you consider these kinds of autographs, try to buy autographs that appear on scarcer certificates and make sure they have minimal cancellations and legible handwriting .

Locally-important autographs

The most unpredictable group of autographs are those of locally-important figures. These are figures who were important in one city, county, or state, but who may not have been well-known elsewhere. Such autographs can attract high bids in one auction and go unsold in the next. Autographs of this nature are the realm of the specialist.

Use caution

When you first start collecting autographs, be cautious! If you see an autograph for sale, and you do not already know who that person was, that is irretuable evidence that you need to do your research FIRST. Never buy an autograph until you know whose signature you are buying and why you need to own it.

Understand the role of sellers

The goal of sellers is to make every certificate sound appealing. When it comes to autographs, their goal is to make every signatory sound important. Never mind that such autographs may be dreadfully common. Never mind that the signatories were not especially important. Do your own research and you will see that many so-called autographs show essentially no year-to-year price appreciation. Do not fall for huckster hype. Not all autographs are valuable.

This book is about collecting stocks and bonds, not autographs. Consequently, For the reasons mentioned above, I do NOT list every possible autograph that dealers may have listed over the years.

Let me stress this point for clarity. Appearances of autographs in a handful of catalogs, dealer lists and especially eBay sales is NOT sufficient reason for inclusion. Please see my extended discussion of listing criteria.

What exactly is an autograph?

For the purposes of this catalog, an autograph is:

  • A hand-signed signature, usually in ink, by the person whose name appears.

An autograph is NOT:

  • A printed or rubber stamped facsimile signature.
  • A signature signed by a mechanical device (Autopen or Signa-Signer).
  • A signature signed by anyone (a surrogate or "secretarial" signer) other than the person named.

Issued to, but not signed by...

In this price guide, you will see sporadic references to certificates that were issued to famous people, although the celebrities never signed them. Such certificates are not autographed. Nonetheless, they carry famous names, so they sometimes attract auction bids above ordinary certificates.

Signed for companies

Many investors became so successful or notorious that they became celebrities in their own rights. Famous investors include people like Henry Clews, Daniel Drew, J.P. Morgan, E.H. Harriman, Jay Cooke, and so forth. Many of those investors formed their own brokerages and carried investments for others in their company accounts. During the normal course of buying and selling securities, brokerages hand-signed tens of thousands of certificates. Some of those endorsements represent the signatures of famous investors, but many do not.

Here is another warning.

Just because certificates carry handsigned corporate names (such as "Henry Clews & Co" or "Morgan & Co.") does NOT necessarily mean those endorsements represent the actual signatures of the principals. When buying "autographs" of celebrities who supposedly signed for companies, be sure dealers or sellers supply proof of autograph authenticities. Since many brokerage certificates were signed by clerks, be sure YOU know what legitimate autographs of celebrities are supposed to look like.

Pens used for autographs

Prior to the 1940s, almost all stocks and bonds were signed by hand with quill and steel nib fountain pens. At the time of signing, such ink was usually black or bluish black. Over time, many of those kinds of ink age to a brown color. As a rule, old autographs show a brown halo caused by migration of the liquid agent (usually linseed oil) that held black pigment (usually lamp black.)

Signatures signed in ball point pen started appearing in the 1950s. You will occasionally find much older certificates signed with ball-point pens at some later time. While no purposeful malice or deception may have been intended, such certificates represent low-quality forgeries.

The earliest ball point pen patent was issued in 1888, but the modern ball-point pen was not invented until about 1935. Even then, those early devices experienced serious problems with ink flow. In practice, ball point pens were not sold in large quantities until the Christmas season of 1945. Certificates signed before that time should be examined carefully and those signed before 1935 have a high probability of being forgeries.

Facsimile autographs
Facsimile signatures were usually printed by offset or intaglio presses, although they were sometimes applied by rubber stamps. While a few facsimile signatures have proven problematic, there are four good methods to differentiate facsimile and genuine autographs.

  • The surest way to tell the difference is to flip certificates over. Fountain pen ink from genuine autographs often soaked through the paper. Printed facsimile ink sits on top of the paper and never soaked through.
  • Real autographs sometimes dented paper and the evidence can be seen most easily from the backs of certificates.
  • Another method is to look closely where one pen stroke crosses another. If the junction of the two strokes is exactly the same shade as the surrounding pen strokes, you’re probably dealing with a facsimile. (Experiment with both fountain pens and ball-point pens to see how the ink becomes heavier where pen strokes cross.)
  • Facsimile signatures are always the same shade of black as the printed portions of certificates.

Facsimile signatures are common on recent stocks and bonds, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when they first appeared. The New York Central used pre-printed officers’ autographs in the 1940s and thereafter. The earliest recorded facsimile signature in the database is currently attributed to a New York Central specimen (NEW-530-Ss-65) from 1914. Facsimile autographs are fairly common on railroad passes dated as early as the mid-1880s.

There is no easy way to discriminate between Autopen signatures and genuine handwritten signatures. Generally, you need several certificates for comparison. If several signatures are identical in flow and appearance, you have a mechanically-made signature. If the signatures vary from example to example, you probably have genuine signatures. (Notable exceptions are the signatures of the U.S. Presidents where several different auto-signing machines are used concurrently.)

Authenticity

Authenticity is a serious issue with autographs. Fortunately, the engraving on stocks and bonds is usually so complex, and certificates are still so cheap, that counterfeiting whole documents makes little sense. However, there is nothing to prevent forgers from buying unissued certificates and adding fake signatures. Theoretically, they can also remove worthless signatures from issued certificates and substitute forgeries of valuable autographs.

As of early 2017, stock and bond autograph forgeries have proven very rare. I fully expect that to change at some point. Protect yourself as much as possible by buying autographs from reputable, established dealers who unequivocally guarantee their products. For valuable signatures, seek expert authentication from one or more third party appraisers completely separate from sellers. Contact one or more of the dealers I have listed on the dealer's page. Please, do not ask me to authenticate autographs. I leave that to the experts in the field of autographs.

Finally, read these books:

  • Questioned Documents
  • Collecting Autographs and Manuscripts

Think you have some special sixth sense that allows you to detect a forged autograph forgery? Think again. For unassailable proof, read:

  • Salamander: the story of the Mormon forgery murders

Prices for autographed issues

As mentioned above, autographs of famous people add significantly to values of otherwise common stocks and bonds. Taken as a group, autographs have supposedly shown good price growth. Regardless of reality, autographs are always popular investments. Just make sure you understand the difference between investment and speculation.

Fame and autograph demand

Generally, the richer and more influential the individual, the greater the collector demand.

Autographs from last century’s millionaires are usually in high demand. Autographs from heirs and offspring are worth much less than their illustrious parents. Signatures from celebrity spouses are usually collected by specialists.

Unless individuals were notorious, rich, or both, autographs of company officers are seldom sought after. Autographs from persons of pure celebrity (movie stars, composers, sports figures) are valued roughly in comparison with their enduring fame. The perceived value of autographs from politicians, military figures, judges, crooks, and other notables roughly track the degree of their national impact.

Presently, the highest-priced rail-related autograph is that of Andrew Carnegie. It appeared on a Pullman Palace Car stock certificate It sold for over $70,000 in the 1999 R.M. Smythe sale at Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Other extremely valuable autographs include 'Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad and the Vanderbilt dynasty. His signature is extremely rare on railroad certificates. Signatures from Jay Gould are moderately valuable on items other than MKT stocks.

The pricing of autographs is problematic

The so-called value of autographs depends on one thing – how important buyers think an autograph should be. One buyer may be enamored with the tenacity of John Casement as he drove the Union Pacific westward across the continent. Another buyer might wonder, "So what?"

In other words, the perceived value of every autograph is personal.

The values of autographs in this catalog originate from prices realized at auctions. In most cases, auction prices represent competition between two or more bidders. Prices in fixed-price catalogs will usually be higher.

Look before you leap

Buy autographs cautiously, especially when you are first starting. Study all aspects of autograph collecting before you invest. Prices are cyclic. Autograph prices CAN AND DO FALL! Financial returns are never guaranteed.

Think about resale

Whether sensible or not, autograph collecting is often equated with investing. Consequently, when you collect autographs, you should always keep an eye on potential resale.

Never buy an autograph before you assess its future value. Ask yourself, as dispassionately as possible, whether you think future collectors will think a particular signature as desirable as you do. Autographs from Commodore Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan are easy. But what about autographs from Henry Clews and Chauncey Depew?

Uncontrollable events affect values

Random events affect people’s impressions about the importance of specific autographs. For example, consider 1869 bonds from the Selma Marion & Memphis Railroad. All were signed by Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In 1989, bonds with his signature routinely sold for $150 to $250. Then came along Public Television’s broadcast of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in 1990. Within months, dealers in a wide range of hobbies noticed an unprecedented interest in every kind of collectible related to the Civil War. By 1992, Selma Memphis & Marion bonds were selling for as much as $900. By 1994, auction prices had topped $1,100. They peaked in the $2,500 to $3,000 range and have since dropped substantially. They are currently selling in the range of $1000 to $1500.

Outside events can also lower values and salability of autographs. Signatures of World War I personalities were in very high demand during the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, interest in World War I autographs dropped significantly. Prices are still low considering their age and historical significance.

 

Buy the Cox Catalog direct from the author. Catalog cover
$20 + post


Send an email message with corrections, questions or comments about this page.
(Last updated February 20, 2017)

 


Papermental logoHelp support this free site! Please visit my eBay store called Papermental by Terry Cox. My inventory includes railroad passes, railroad ephemera, newspapers, magazines, engravings, and all sorts of paper collectibles.

Please contact me if you have certificates not yet listed. (See How You Can Help.)

I suggest using WeTransfer or similar file transfer sites when sending large files or large numbers of files.

PLEASE contact the many fine dealers listed on my dealers page to buy certificates.