Are low serial numbers more valuable?

Many amateur sellers on eBay try to enhance the salability of their certificates by touting their "low serial numbers."

I hate to break the bad news, but ...

The earliest #1 recorded (1838).
Image courtesy Dr. Thomas O'Shaughnessy

My experience suggests collectors rarely pay more for any serial numbers above #3. I've heard murmurings that a few people collect "special' numbers, but if so, any additional premiums they pay are undetectable, hidden in the high variability of ordinary prices.

It is true that collectors commonly, but not always, pay premiums for serial #1. Premiums are typically higher in Europe than in the U.S. where they seem to run about 25% more than higher-numbered certificates. I have recorded a few #1s that attracted premiums of 100% over certificates in similar conditions of the same variety, but that kind of price bump is unusual.

A deeper look at #1 stock certificates

At the time of this writing (early 2024), there are fewer than 900 stock certificates reported with serial #1. One might expect that serial #1 stock certificates would have been issued for large numbers of shares to influential investors. That certainly happened, because a bit more than half of #1 serials were issued for 100 shares or more.

It would be foolish to assume all #1 were issued for large share amounts. In fact, a third of all known #1s them were issued for one share only. The point of the story is not to expect serial #1 certificates to be particularly special other than their serial numbers.

Serials #2 and #3 are equally unique, right?

Image courtesy Coleman Liefer

With a few odd exceptions in the case of recycled serial numbers, all serial numbers are unique.

 I suspect there are some collectors who specialize in collecting other special numbers. it is clear that #1s have a special cachet, but some people think #2s and #3s are special, too. Very low serial numbers were often issued to founders or special friends of companies. My price records show some premiums paid for #2s and #3s, but theyrarely exceed 50%. In some cases, it is entirely possible that specialists might actually pay more for obscure founder names and autographs than any specific serial number.

Image courtesy David Adams

Serial number populations

Only 881 stock certificates have been reported with serial #1 out of 11,474 varieties of stocks certificates listed in the database (as of early 2024.)

One or two knowledgeable collectors have told me that stock certificates were commonly sold to companies in lots of 200 items. It turns out that the highest serial number in 60% (!) of stock certificate varieties are numbered #200 or lower. That should imply that at least 6,900 varieties OUGHT to have a #1 serial. I strongly doubt that more than a third survive today, but it gives us a clue that a LOT of #1s are yet to be reported. 

Only a tiny handful of collectors report their certificates to me. And I cannot possibly catalog more auctions than I already do. Consequently, I'm astounded that 881 certificates are already listed in the database with serial #1. Most collectors collect all kinds of certificates, but stocks are the most common by far. Here is a breakdown of the five lowest serial numbers. (These are absolute numbers. They will gradually rachet upward. At this point, I expect the number of varieties and low serial numbers to increase slowly, probably at about the same rate.)

Certificate type Varieties (*) #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Stocks 11,474 881 717 616 613 632
Bonds 4,491 212 112 133 105 124
Other 1,713 93 43 38 25 28
* Counting only certificates with serial numbers. Varieties populated only by specimens, proofs, and other unnumbered ecertificates are ignored.

Stock certificates account for roughly a third of all types of coal and railroad certificates known to me. 75% of all serial #1s are known among stock certificates. Stock certificates are where to look for more low-numbered serials. 

#1 bonds are even scarcer

Image courtesy William Knadler

So far, less than 225 serial #1 bonds have been reported and most originated from only 29 companies. Such a low survivorship is curious.

Most companies that lasted long enough to became regional leaders typically issued 1.5 to 2 times as many variations in bond designs as stocks. And yet the number of #1 bonds currently recorded is less than a quarter third of those known for stocks. 

I suggest collectors be especially vigilant when looking at bonds if they are collectors of certificates with low serial numbers