Collectible Stocks and Bonds from North American Railroads     by Terry Cox

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(I do NOT buy or sell certificates on this website)

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Colors of certificates

Reporting new color varieties

People constantly report color differences they see among certificates for sale on the web. Some of those differences are real. Some aren't.

Let's say I have a "steel blue" certificate listed in the database, but you find a red certificate for sale. You have definitely discovered a new variety.

That is not where the problem is.

The problem is with minor variants.

Now, let's say I have a "steel blue" variety listed, and you report a "greenish blue" variety from something you find on the web.

I will not add a new listing unless there are other visible differences.

Why not?

There are several reasons, but first and foremost, NEVER trust the colors you see on the web. NEVER.

I will repeat that for emphasis. NEVER trust the colors you see on the web.

I admit, you may find web images that actually represent true colors of certificates. That is a happy accident. You see, there are huge numbers of variables that affect color rendition. It is simply unreasonable to assume that the color you see on the web is the same as you might see in real life.

Here are some of the major variables...

Monitors -- Except for high-priced monitors used by imaging professionals, monitors are never properly calibrated. Color calibration equipment is still expensive and both color calibration and color rendition drifts with the age of electronics.

I have two identical monitors, side by side, bought at the same time. I have calibrated them as well as I can, but they have never portrayed the same colors.

Scanners -- Imaging professionals use high-priced scanning equipment and they calibrate them frequently. Almost everyone else uses low-price scanners that cannot be calibrated at all. How can they possibly reproduce colors exactly?

The truth is that every bulb in every scanner creates its own color bias. Moreover, color biases change as bulbs age.

Cameras and ambient light -- Same thing here. Every combinations of lens, camera, sensors, flash, dust, ambient light and reflected light creates its own color bias. If someone has posted an image to the web that came from a hand-held camera, then colors have a minimal chance of being accurate.

Think back to your own results with photography. Fluorescent lighting makes images look green. Incandescent lights give images overly "warm," orange casts. The combination of two such light sources can look horrible. Natural light from late in the day will look reddish, while photos taken on cloudy days look oddly blue. Camera flashes impart their own color spectrum.

And then, what about people taking pictures of certificates with their phones? Come on! What are the chances that certificate colors are reproduced accurately? I'll tell you. Slim and none!

Paper color -- Paper generally ages toward a brownish-yellow hue. Some papers start out as blue, gray, and occasionally yellow. Either way, descriptions of certificate colors will be influenced by paper color.

Underprint color -- Many certificates carry green, pink, and tan underprints. The presence of underprints affects the ability to discriminate more important colors.

Variability among certificates -- Never assume that certificates of the same design were printed on the same press, at the same time, with the same ink. A stack of nearly identical certificates will always show variability. I have two P&LE certificates that are only a few serial numbers apart. Yet their colors are noticeably different. Consider that some high-run certificates from large companies might have been printed decades and hundreds of miles apart.

Color "blindness" -- Only a tiny percentage of people are truly color blind. Still, somewhere around 0.4 to 1% of females have an impaired ability to see a full range of colors accurately. Men are significantly worse off. Published research suggests that 7% of men have a decreased ability to discriminate in the red/green part of the spectrum. Estimates of impairment range as high as 10%, depending on the definition of impairment.

Age of collectors' eyes -- With all due respect to typical certificate collectors (myself included), age affects detection, perception, and description of "color." I hate to report this inescapable fact, but older collectors are simply not as good at seeing color as younger people.

Color terminology -- Descriptions of colors like blue, green, brown, and red are easy. When we try to agree on terms like maroon, tan, steel, etc., etc., we are opening a Pandora's box of disagreement.

Custom inks -- American Bank Note company went to great lengths to make odd custom ink colors. The idea was to make it hard to copy colored certificates. Those colors are very hard to describe.

Life is too short to "nitpick" or argue about colors. I recognize people disagree with my color descriptions. That is okay with me. I often disagree with my own earlier descriptions. Consequently, I change color descriptions manytimes a year. Nonetheless...


Go to any well-stocked paint store and you look at the hundreds upon hundreds of color names. Some color names are truly descriptive and evocative. Hundreds are terminally "cute." I am willing to bet that some possessed individual could find hundreds of names for the color "green."

Please understand that my goal is singular: to describe certificate sufficiently well that collectors can identify varieties. I am entirely uninterested in splitting hairs over minimal color differences.

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(Last updated Oct 11, 2015)


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