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PERSONAL FINANCE / KATHY M. KRISTOF

Taking Stock of Old Certificates : Value: Sleuthing services have helped thousands of individuals to collect on old and even canceled shares.

March 13, 1993|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Rick Inghram's father gave him a stack of obsolete stock certificates when he was just a boy, believing that the stocks were all worthless. But Inghram saw a newspaper advertisement for a stock sleuthing service last year and decided to check it out. He's since collected a cool $50,000 from shares he held in just one company--North European Oil.

"It was like hitting a lottery ticket," says Inghram, a Las Vegas resident. "I have another 30 or 40 certificates of other companies that have been sitting around for 20 years. Maybe one day I'll get them checked out too."

Inghram is just one of thousands of individuals who have found--either through their own research or somebody else's--that the old stock certificates gathering dust in the attic or safe deposit box were worth more than the paper they're printed on. Indeed, some stock search services maintain that individuals are sitting on billions of dollars in stock gains from shares they probably believe are useless.

"We have a lot of older women who come in because they've found stocks in their (late) husbands' papers," says Micheline Masse, president of Stock Search International in San Diego. "Their husbands didn't tell them about it, because they thought they had made bad investments, so they didn't want to make an issue of it."

However, in some cases, the old stock certificates can be worth thousands, Masse says.

There are actually several ways that you may get value out of an obsolete stock certificate, experts say. Some old companies have simply changed names and locations, so in addition to appreciation, you may be owed past dividends. Other companies have liquidated, but somewhere in trust there's money being held in your name. And other companies are dormant, but they own assets, so they have potential value, Masse says.

And even if the company is long gone and bankrupt--or the stock certificate has been canceled--your shares still might have collector's value, says Stephen Goldsmith, vice president of R.M. Smythe in New York.

A canceled share in Standard Oil Co., for example, recently sold at auction for $12,500. What made it so valuable? It was issued to and signed by John D. Rockefeller, said Goldsmith.

A share of Alabama Gold & Copper Mining, signed by Pat Garrett--the killer of Billy the Kid--sold at auction for $2,600, Masse says. And a Chaplin Studio share, signed by Charlie Chaplin, sold for about $9,000.

Of course, not every old stock or bond has value. Masse estimates that about 60% of the shares brought to her are actually worthless. Of the other 40%, about 20% have collector's value, 10% have intrinsic value and 10% eventually may be worth something.

How do you figure out whether your old stocks and bonds are valuable or worthless?

You can do a little research on your own, or you can hire somebody to do it for you. Several firms, including Masse's Stock Search and R.M. Smythe, will research whether your shares have intrinsic or collector's value. Smythe charges $50 per stock; Stock Search $75. If your stock does have value, Smythe will not collect for you, but will give you the appropriate forms and tell you who to contact. Stock Search will collect for an additional fee.

But clearly if you have numerous shares in different companies these research fees can be exorbitant. It's wise for investors to do a little preliminary work on their own, experts say.

What you do will depend on the age of the shares and how much you know about the company. It may be reasonably simple to check out a stock you bought in the 1970s, but difficult to track your grandmother's holdings from the 1800s, for example.

A first step, in either case, is to talk to a stock broker to see if the company is still listed and trading on a major stock exchange. If the shares are relatively current and you have a good broker, the broker may know what's happened to the company even if it's not trading. It should be relatively easy to catch up to firms that have simply changed names, merged or filed for bankruptcy within the last few years.

Where the task gets tough is when a company has changed names or merged several times, which is particularly likely to happen with very old shares. A good starting place in this case is the Fisher Manuals of Valuable and Worthless Securities. The Fisher Manuals, first published in 1926, are available at most major public libraries, says Barbara Bracco, a research associate at Smythe. (Bracco, incidentally, is the daughter of Fisher Manual's editor, Robert D. Fisher, and the granddaughter of the manual's founder. Stock sleuthing runs in the family, she said. Fisher also is an executive at Smythe.)

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