Back in February, 2004, an experienced and long-time collector contacted me about certificates he owned. We wrote emails back and forth over the next seventeen months during which time he sent scans of 270 rail-related certificates, all but three being stocks. The images he sent were good enough that 232 still appear on my website as plate images.
He stopped corresponding as quickly as he had appeared and it was not until writing this article that I thought to look him up on the web. I found his obituary and discovered he had died of COVID-19 about a year ago. I also discovered much more about him than he had divulged in our communications; he was strictly business. It turns out he had several more robust collecting interests and I suspect scripophily was probably a sideline.
We all know how memories fade, but I remember one thing clearly. He shared advice about recording and reporting minor details on certificates. He even had a name for it: “Flyspeck scripophily.”
His basic thoughts were to avoid getting seduced into recording and reporting every tiny variation or flyspeck that could be found on certificates. He suggested I lay ground rules for myself, rules about what I would and would not use to create new varieties. “You’ll go crazy and burn out if you record every variation that collectors will find. There are just too many!”
While I normally receive one or two flyspeck requests each year, four or five have appeared in the last few months. I will illustrate with an inquiry I had been expecting since shortly after project inception.
Almost every railroad specialist will encounter equipment trusts. They strongly resemble bonds in appearance, but in practice represent equity purchases of equipment. Equipment trusts are essentially the ancestors of American automobile leases, the difference being that equipment trusts are founded to buy and lease specific equipment for specific companies.
The bulk of Equipment Trust Certificates (ETCs) that collectors encounter resemble bearer coupon bonds, although the coupons on ETCs are called “warrants.” ETCs are normally denominated like bonds, $500 and $1,000 being the most common units. Because they represent group ownership of assets, they are sold and labeled as “shares.” In later years before electronic trading, ETCs gradually shifted to registered status.
Trusts, investment banks and savings and loans printed and issued ETCs, NOT railroad companies. Railroad ETCs are typically labeled like “Northern Pacific Railway Equipment Trust, The First National City Bank of New York, Trustee.” The majority (but not all) of ETCs were 15-year investments and were redeemed serially. In general, trusts repaid 1/30th of their certificates every six months. This is where the discussion of “flyspeck scripophily” begins.
Serial ETCs were labeled with semi-annual redemption dates and every 15-year trust theoretically printed 30 different sets of certificates, each with different redemption dates. I do not know if there are specialists who collect every variation of due dates within specific series or not, but no one has ever contacted me to say so.
If collectors inform me of specific due dates different than ones I show in images, I must question whether they expect me to catalog every such variation. And if they do, are they currently paying premiums to collect those different variations?
I currently list 453 ETC varieties in my database. If all were 15-year issuances and all date variations still existed, listing all possible due dates would enlarge my database by over 13,000 new listings. Even more when considering ETCs issued in both bearer and registered forms. Do collectors really want that kind of detail? And do those collectors realize how many other kinds of flyspeck variations exist?
Admittedly there can be disagreement about what constitutes a flyspeck, but in general I chose many years ago to ignore all minor features except those that either affected the nature of securities or the ease with which they were traded and redeemed. In the example of ETCs, I have recorded 453 visibly different “varieties,” but chose to ignore the hundreds or thousands of date variations that might still exist. Many other flyspecks exist and continue to attract questions. Here are a few I can remember discussing, all involving requests for catalog listing:
1) Name combinations of secretary /treasurer / president, registrars and counter signatures; 2) variations in the text and vignettes found on the backs of stock certificates; 3) place names including places where issued, registered, countersigned, transferred and redeemed; 4) subtle variations in colors; 5) adhesive revenue stamp varieties with their associated philatelic descriptions; 6) state adhesive revenues; 7) non-North American imprinted revenues; 8) size variations; 9) variations in font styles.
I know some of these may sound silly, but inquiries have been well-meaning. After all, scripophily collectors have encountered equally minor features cataloged in other hobbies, especially stamps and coins.
What correspondents may not appreciate, at least not fully, is the magnitude of what they might be asking of catalogers. Flyspecks come in different scales, some that would create catalog expansions in the hundreds of listings and several in multiple thousands.
After seventeen years, I still thank one of my correspondents for warning me to stay grounded on the subject of flyspeck scripophily. My only regret is I can no longer thank him for sharing his wisdom.