Christian Schroeder found the bargain of his life at a flea market in Hamburg.
Mr. Schroeder, a collector of historic securities, was actually planning to buy toys for his kids. But then he spotted a share in the shipping company Harburg-Englische Dampfschifffahrts-Gesellschaft – a genuine historic security. He asked the seller how much he wanted for it and was told: “It just got in there. Give me a euro and you can have it.” That flea market trip was 10 years ago and Mr. Schroeder still owns the share, now estimated to be worth €1,800 ($2,026).
But Mr. Schroeder doesn’t care about the profit. “It’s about collecting,” he said. That’s the main thing for many owners of historic securities. The companies to which the certificates belonged have long since gone bankrupt, disappeared in the chaos of war or merged with other groups. That means the securities are not worth anything. But for historians, they are real treasures, a reminder of long-ago events.
An example is a share in “Hamburg-Brasilische Dampfschiffahrt-Gesellschaft,” a German-Brazilian shipping company that transported German passengers to Brazil during a wave of emigration in the mid-19th century and brought coffee back to Hamburg on its return journeys. The share certificate shows Hamburg harbor and Rio de Janeiro.
A security’s value on the collectors’ market is determined largely by its beauty, rarity and historic significance. Some bear original signatures of famous people. Apart from that, some sectors are simply more popular than others, said Michael Weingarten, who heads a German company that trades in historic securities by mail order and that is actually listed on the stock market itself. The most valuable item he is aware of is the “Roulette de Monte Carlo,” a bond that sold for over €1 million four years ago in London. The normal price range is very wide, he says, and can be anything between €1 and €50,000.
Mr. Weingarten has been collecting historic securities for over 30 years, an activity known as “scripophily” to members of the scene. He got into his unusual hobby while working in securities management at Deutsche Bank. He says it is common to collect securities from a specific region or sector.
Mr. Schroeder had a similar experience. A former colleague of Mr. Weingarten, he was given his first historic security as a leaving gift from colleagues when he left Deutsche Bank. Mr. Schroeder now estimates that he owns the most complete collection of historic stocks and share certificates from Hamburg, with over 3,000 securities.
“But,” he emphasizes, “the size of it really doesn’t say much.” He cannot put a figure on how much his entire collection is worth, and says he only considers a sale if he has two copies of a security. Even then he sometimes uses the duplicates only to swap them for other securities that he does not yet have.
Anyone can get involved in trading in historic securities. However, Mr. Weingarten says that “really good items” start at €1,000. Anyone thinking about using them as an investment should be aware that the market is unpredictable, he said. “It always develops differently from the way you expect.” He says that securities can quickly lose value if new copies crop up. This happened on a large scale between 2003 and 2009 when several million securities from the Reichsbank, the central bank of Germany until 1945, came onto the market. The government of the German Reich had hidden almost 30 million securities in an underground vault in 1940 to protect them from Allied bomb attacks.
However, according to Mr. Weingarten, banks and companies have now searched their archives and there is very little danger of large numbers of new securities coming to light. When asked whether historic securities are a worthwhile investment, he said: “You would need high-end pieces and at least 10 years.” Although he regards his collection mainly as a hobby, he still describes these securities as a legitimate asset class. “If you’d like to diversify, you can add historic securities.” However, he believes most collectors have an interest in history, particularly the history of the stock markets.
The securities are always tradable, although the price can vary significantly. Valuation catalogs such as Suppes can provide information on prices. One major advantage that historic securities have over other collectors’ items such as stamps is that there is virtually no problem with counterfeits. “We are very counterfeit-proof,” Mr. Weingarten said, explaining it would be too complicated to produce fakes as the securities were created by large printing houses.
Mr. Weingarten says it is difficult to estimate what the long-term return on historic securities could be, as the market only emerged about 40 years ago. “We’re just starting to come of age,” he said.
Catiana Krapp writes for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com