This article appeared in
April, 2022

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

It is a little hard to admit, but I am deeply honored and always a bit embarrassed when someone asks, "How do you do it?" Compared to the giants, I don't feel like I've done anything.

I am certainly not much of a collector, especially compared to several of the real collectors who contribute to my project. Yes, I have several hundred certificates, but the truth is, many acquisitions were merely ways to collect information I could not find anywhere else. I realize I am nothing compared to countless expert collectors and dealers. Truth be told, I am immensely honored to have known and been helped by so many on both sides of the Atlantic.

When it comes to the collection and dissemination of information about certificates, Roland Mulville Smythe is due substantial honor with his first seminal work on Valuable Extinct Securities published in early 1929. While he was interested in locating bonds with residual security values, some of the "worthless" certificates he mentioned almost a hundred years ago remain today as collectibles. One can only marvel at the time and effort it took Smythe to research the estimated 2,300 bonds he listed. He did it with the help of many people as well as his amazing research library. I find it wondersome that it passed through the hands of John and Diana Herzog and the R. M. Smythe company and still survives today with American scripophily dealer, Bob Kerstein.

Charles Affleck and Benjamin Douglas were pioneers in writing about collectible certificates with their 38-page book on Confederate bonds in 1960, followed almost immediately by Grover Criswell's first book on the same subject a year later. The hobby really did not gain a solid kickoff, though, until Ulrich Drumm and Alfons Henseler published their catalogs and research on Russian and Chinese bonds in 1975 and 1976. Their works caused such a stir in Europe that The Times (of London) decided the new hobby could not function well without a formal name. Consequently, The Times launched a contest in early 1978 and christened the hobby with the name "scripophily" in its May 9 edition.

The first reference to American railroad certificates that I am aware of came along in a 1980 book by Anne-Marie Hendy, titled appropriately American Railroad Stock Certificates. That same year, George LaBarre published the first of three volumes of certificate prices, ultimately illustrating over 1,100 certificates, 40% of which were rail-related. Andrew Hall, Sr. and Bill Yatchman followed in 1984 with two more price guides on American certificates. It is easy to forget that all those works from Smythe forward had been published at times when communication was by mail and notes were kept in boxes of 3x5 cards and three-ring binders.

I came to the hobby in the late 1980s after spending formative years collecting coins and other things before finally discovering paper money, particularly fractional currency. I was and remain amazed by the true greats at compiling information about hobbies including Milton Friedberg (fractionals), John Hickman and Dean Oakes (nationals), Eric P. Newman (colonials), Q. David Bowers (coins and almost everything!), Gene Hessler (paper money, engravings and engravers) and many, many more.

All I have done is follow in their footsteps. Criswell, Hendy, LaBarre, Hall, Yatchman, Hessler and huge numbers of dealers, auction houses and collectors broke the trail for me. Without them, I probably could not have found the drive to go forward. And even if I could have, the project would have been immensely more difficult, maybe impossible.

When asked how to do a project like this, I simply point at all the greats and say, "Do what they did."

And what did they do? They didn't stop. They certainly did many different things, but they all shared one trait: they didn’t stop. "Just…don't…stop."

Another "trick" is one I picked up from Tony Robbins: never-ending improvement. Don't try to beat someone else; improve upon yourself. Whatever large or small progress gained yesterday can be built upon and improved today. It might end up being two steps forward and one step back, but it’s still progress. So, get after it.

Another trick that I've found helpful is re-framing problems. Yes, it's a cheap trick, but it works. If I need to enter 300 auction results or make a thousand corrections to my records, I simply look at those little problems from different viewpoints. "At least there aren't 600 lots to record." "Thankfully, I don't need to make TWO thousand corrections!"

Collectors may ponder, “But I don’t have a project.”

Pardon me, but what do you think your collection is? Isn’t your collection a multi-year, if not a life-long, project? What can you do to make it better? Can you ramp up your effort at finding new items? Does your collection need better organization? Is your collection too broad or too narrow? Should you get rid of some dead wood? Can you find someone to trade with? Have you described all the items in your collection for insurance purposes? How long since you contacted new dealers or new collectors? Have you researched histories of the companies in your collection? Have you thought about writing an article for this magazine?

Most important of all, have you found a way, no matter how small, to leave your hobby better than you found it? If not, welcome to your new project.