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What can serial numbers tell us?
Purpose of recording serial numbers. It is obvious that the original purpose of numbering certificates was to allow companies to track certificate sales and redemptions.
As collectors, we are greatly more interested in the relative rarity of different types of certificates. If we knew ALL serial numbers of ALL certificates still in existence, we could know very precisely the rarity of any certificate we encounter.
Unfortunately, no such record of serial numbers exists. Therefore, we need to compile that list a little at a time.
The myth that rarity equals price. Let's not overstate the case. A record of serial numbers would help us understand rarity. But, by itself, rarity does NOT establish value. Rarity influences desirability and desirability influences value. While it is generally true that all other things being equal (age, attractiveness, condition, autographs, etc.), rare certificates usually cost more than more common certificates. However, there are thousands upon thousands of examples where rare certificates sell for less than common certificates. I beg you, please do not confuse yourself into believing that rarity is the most important influence on value.
It would be nice to have a full record of all serial numbers from every variety of certificate, but that will never happen.
By the first quarter of 2012, about 106,000 serial numbers had been recorded. By mid-2015, the number had exceeded 122,000 and by the end of 2020 almost 148,000. Unfortunately, we have barely scratched the surface. We don't even know how large the number of certificate varieties might be, let alone the numbers of serial numbers. It could be in the millions. We may never even reach a million numbers, but the more we record, the better we can understand which certificates are rare and which are common.
To me, an important reason to record serial numbers is to help discover new varieties. Gaps in serial numbers often tell us to look more closely at certificates that flank the gaps. So far, the study of serial numbers has already disclosed two to three hundred new varieties. More are waiting to be discovered.
I stress that you should NEVER assume that price is related to the total number of serial numbers reported. The numbers of serial numbers for common certificates are greatly under-represented in the database.
I use a $20 minimum when recording serial numbers from eBay sales. Otherwise, I would not have time for anything else in my life. That minimum price means I purposely ignore large numbers of serial numbers.
"Some of your serial numbers seem wrong." Agreed. There are definitely inaccuracies in the database. Serial numbers come from thousands of sources and every source is prone to error. Be assured that accuracy ranges from perfect to highly questionable.
Handwritten serial numbers and dates can be very hard to read. Misinterpretations of handwritten dates are extremely common. Even experienced dealers and collectors make mistakes.
Sources of serial numbers in the database:
I do NOT include serial numbers from bond coupons. Just because coupons exist does NOT mean collectible bonds exist.Accuracy of numbers. Photos from internet sources used to be downright awful, but they have been improving substantially as the quality of digital and smartphone cameras have improved. Still, the interpretation of serial numbers can be questionable.
Mistakes occur when reading characters of similar shapes, especially when characters are handwritten. These groups of letters and numbers are often confused with each other and cause the greatest number of mistakes:
Prefix and suffix letters. Many catalogers do not report prefix and suffix characters. As a rule, catalogers also drop leading zeros. This is too bad, because all characters are crucial.
Prefix letters often indicate specific series of certificates. For instance, "C", "V" and "M" were commonly used as prefixes for serial numbers on $100, $500, and $1000 bonds. If a "C" serial number on a bond is reported for a variety otherwise populated by "M" prefixes, then an identification error is waiting to be corrected.
Serial number prefixes were also often used to distinguish between common ("C") and preferred ("P") stock certificates.
Prefix letters frequently indicated cities of issuance. You will often see serial numbers with "C", "P", "B", and "N" prefixes on near identical certificates that potentially indicate to issuance from Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, or New York. It is not at all unusual to see similar serial numbers from the same variety issued many years apart with only the prefixes to inform the reasons.
Prefix letters on late-date certificates often indicated different series of issuances. This is particularly true as heavy trading in the 1960s and 1970s prompted the issuance and redemption of tens of thousands of certificates per day.
Most collectors think serial numbers should appear in date order. Most do. If you spot serial numbers out of date order, chances are great that there has been a reporting error. Reporting errors are common due to two factors already discussed:
Without images, it is impossible to go back and confirm either serial numbers or curious dates.
Amateur sellers have created a large number of errors by reporting cancellation dates instead of issuance dates.
Several reporting errors on bonds have been traced to sellers having reported coupon dates instead of issuance dates.
With those warnings, I will nonetheless testify that collectors will encounter valid serial numbers out of date order.
How can date order could get messed up? It may seem strange, but it is common to see low-numbered certificates issued out of date order. Sometimes, low-numbered certificates were dated several months after companies incorporated and after higher-number certificates had been issued. Some collectors have suggested that such certificates might have been set aside for special investors and friends of management. I cannot confirm one way or another.
Companies often issued temporary certificates immediately after incorporation and replaced them a few months later with engraved "permanent" certificates. It was common (but never governed by any rule) for companies to issue permanent certificates with the same serial numbers as the temporary certificates. When that happened, some companies dated the new certificates with actual issue dates while others used the same dates as temporary certificates. Things can get very confused.
Normally, when stock certificates were sold to new investors, old certificates were sent back to companies. Those companies then transferred ownership and issued new, higher-numbered certificates. For unknown reasons, some companies recycled their old numbers. When issuing new certificates, a few companies indicated their actions with suffixes. As with prefixes, most people fail to notice or report suffix letters. They are, in fact, highly important.
As mentioned above, companies often used prefix letters to indicate cities where certificates were sold. For instance, certificates C1 to C3000 might have been issued in Chicago and certificates N1 to N27000 might have been issued in New York. Certificates issued from different cities never sold at the same rates. Therefore, when collectors and dealers fail to report prefixes, serial numbers and dates will seem highly confused.
Similarly, certificates intended for sale may have been divided into batches and given to two or more brokers, trust companies, transfer agencies, or exchanges for issuance. In those cases, serial numbers were NEVER issued in date order.
Gaps in numbering. Companies often switched designs of certificates when they ran out of their initial supplies. As a rule, most companies maintained their original numbering schemes, but frequently skipped a few hundred or a few thousand numbers between successive certificate orders. Consequently, large and legitimate gaps may occur in serial numbering.
Unless entire books of certificates have been reported, gaps occur in every variety. Take, for instance, BAL-662b-S-30. Only a couple hundred extant certificates have been reported out of a known range of 58,226. Do the other certificates exist? I would not be at all surprised if 10,000 or more examples of S-30 exist. I doubt, however, today's collectors will ever report more than a few hundred. We will be left with thousands of numbering gaps. Regardless of how many certificates we may think exist, most of us would agree that S-30 from the Baltimore & Ohio Rail-Road Co. is a very common certificate.
On the other hand, there are many varieties of certificates represented by only two or three widely-spaced numbers. How many certificates exist within those large gaps. Ten? Twenty? Fifty? In most cases, we won't know for decades. Every new serial number that comes in improves our understanding. However, I cannot imagine ever having complete numbering sequences.
Repeated numbers. In hindsight, it seems rather silly, but it appears that when many companies changed their certificate designs, they re-started their numbering with certificate #1. In fact, repeated serial numbers are not terribly uncommon. Repeated serial numbers sometimes signal major corporate changes. Sometimes they mean absolutely nothing.
I guarantee you WILL find strange and inexplicable numbering. It is best to assume that about half of the examples of strange serial numbering had legitimate reasons. The other half are probably entrenched mistakes. You will drive yourself crazy trying to unravel all the possible reasons for odd numbering.
Some strange numbering results from listing behavior of catalogers and dealers. Many auction catalogs (particularly German catalogs) show pictures of serially-numbered certificates very much different from the dates and serial numbers actually being offered for sale. If correspondents report those serial numbers to me, they may not realize they are mismatching dates and serial numbers. Contributors also may not realize there are varietal differences that catalogers consider unimportant.
These inadvertent mistakes are the main reason I now require images before adding serial numbers to the database. (See below.)
Low serial numbers. European collectors frequently pay more for certificates with very low serial numbers. Low serial numbers seldom command much of a premium among U.S. collectors.
How low is "low"? European collectors often pay 50% to 200% more for #1 certificates and perhaps 10% to 40% more for #2 certificates. #3 certificates sometimes command a 10% to 20% premium. Certificates numbered above #3 rarely attract attention.
Do not be overly demanding in your pursuit for low serial numbers. They may not exist.
Remember, railroad companies often continued their old serial numbering when they switched certificate designs. Therefore, the lowest serial number for particular stock certificate design might have been 1, 101, 1,001, or even 100,001.
A review of reported serial numbers strongly suggests that over half of all varieties of stock certificates never had serial numbers below 100. Simply put, you have no hope of finding serial #1 for over half of all varieties of stock certificates because they never existed!
Need more convincing? A deeper review of the database suggests that almost one third of all varieties of stock certificates probably had a minimum serial number higher than 500.
Want to help contribute serial numbers? Please send scanned images or black-and-white paper copies of your certificates. I will not enter serial numbers from lists and spreadsheets. I know that sounds harsh and demanding, but it is important to understand that images:
If wanting to contribute serial numbers, please send scanned images or black-and-white paper copies of your certificates. In the long run, I have found that raw lists of serial numbers usually create more problems than they solve.
Please review my Priorities table to see the tasks I consider most important for this project. You will notice that I list serial numbers from lists among my lowest project priorities. I stress in the strongest possible way that raw serial numbers give me absolutely no ability to check for errors or variety breaks.
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