Autographs & Bonds
Collectible Stocks and Bonds from North American Railroads by Terry Cox
Autograph collecting is a separate hobby that overlaps the stock and bond hobby. Many celebrities signed certificates, either as owners of securities or as individuals connected with railroad companies. Autographs can be important for their historical significance and their speculative possibilities.
Do your research
Newcomers often share the misconception that autographs represent excellent opportunities to get rich quick. A warning is in order.
You cannot stumble into the autograph hobby and reasonably expect to win. Autograph collecting takes careful research. It takes a clear understanding of the market. Without both (and without a modicum of luck), speculation in autographs represents a terrific opportunity to get poor quick.
Autographs that show the greatest demand among advanced collectors are those of major industrialists (Rockefeller, Carnegie), major investors (Hetty Green), legendary railroaders (Commodore Vanderbilt), and major historical figures (Nathan Bedford Forrest). Signatures of that caliber routinely attract prices in the thousands of dollars.
Important signatures often (but not always) show increases in prices and have historically beaten inflation by a few percent per year. At that level of collecting, all speculative value is in the autographs. The values of certificates on which they appear, even rare certificates, are immaterial.
Autographs of medium importance
Down the ladder of importance are signatures of prominent railroaders (Jay Gould, Harriman, Huntington, and the Vanderbilt children), important industrialists (Morgan, DuPont, and Mellon), politicians (Fillmore), and military figures (Burnside.)
Those people were important Americans, but collectors usually pay less than a thousand dollars each for their signatures. Their popularity is somewhat fickle. They are in a different class than the previous group. Like the previous group, their signatures are worth more than the certificates they grace, but the rarity of certificates affects overall values.
Autographs of less importance
In less demand are the signatures of minor figures. This group includes autographs from people like Cassatt, Clews, Depew, Grow, and Scott. These people were important to their companies. Many were well known, even famous, in their time. Still, they had limited impact on the nation as a whole.
At this level of collecting, you can discern the values of autographs separate from the values of certificates. Expect to pay $5 to $100 for autographs from this group plus the cost of the certificates. Buy autographs from this group carefully. Always consider possible resale. When you buy these kinds of autographs, try to buy autographs with minimal cancellations and legible handwriting on scarcer certificates.
The most unpredictable group of autographs are those of locally-important figures. These are figures who were important in one city, county, or state, but who may not have been well-known elsewhere. Such autographs can attract high bids in one auction and go unsold thereafter. These kinds of autographs are the realm of the specialist.
When you first start collecting autographs, be very cautious! If you see an autograph for sale, and you do not already know who that person was, you need to do your research FIRST. Never buy an autograph until you know whose signature you are buying and why you need to own it.
This book is about collecting stocks and bonds, not autographs. Consequently, For the reasons mentioned above, I do NOT list every possible autograph that dealers may have listed over the years. Let me stress this point for clarity. Appearances of autographs in one of more catalogs or dealers' lists is NOT sufficient reason for inclusion. Please see my extended and detailed discussion of selection criteria. Not all autographs are valuable.
What exactly is an autograph?
For the purposes of this catalog, an autograph is:
A hand-signed signature, usually in ink, by the person whose name appears.
An autograph is NOT:
A printed or rubber stamped facsimile signature.
A signature signed by a mechanical device (Autopen or Signa-Signer).
A signature signed by someone (a surrogate or "secretarial" signer) other than the person named.
Stock certificates commonly offer several autograph possibilities. On the front of each stock certificate are usually two signatures of company executives. These are usually the company president and a clerk or treasurer. Additionally, there are often additional counter-signatures by clerks or officers in trust companies or banks. If a stock certificate was legally transferred from one owner to another, the signature of the stockholder will usually appear on the back. Such certificates may also include potentially valuable signatures of witnesses, powers of attorney, or transfer company officers.
Issued bonds usually show only company presidents' signatures on the front although some include signatures of comptrollers, treasurers, and clerks. Owners' signatures seldom appear anywhere on bearer bonds. Registered occasionally show owners’ signatures on the backs. The backs of many bonds show the signatures of trustees and guarantors.
Issued to, but not signed by...
In this price guide, you will see a few references to certificates that were issued to famous people, but the celebrities never signed them. Normally, such certificates were signed by people with powers of attorney. Such certificates are not autographed. However, because they carry famous names, they sometimes attract auction bids slightly above ordinary certificates.
Signed for companies
Many investors grew in status to the point where they became celebrities in their own rights. Famous investors include people like Henry Clews, Daniel Drew, J.P. Morgan, E.H. Harriman, Jay Cooke, and so forth. Many of those investors owned their own brokerages and carried investments for others in their company accounts. During the normal course of buying and selling securities, brokerages may have signed hundreds or thousands of certificates. However, just because certificates carry handsigned corporate names (such as "Henry Clews & Co") does NOT necessarily mean those signatures represent the actal signatures of the principals. When buying "autographs" of celebrities who supposedly signed for companies, be sure dealers or sellers supply proof of autographs 'authenticities. Since many brokerage certificates were signed by clerks, be sure YOU know what legitimate autographs of celbrities are supposed to look like.
Pens used for autographs
Prior to the 1940s, almost all stocks and bonds were signed by hand with quill, steel nib and fountain pens. When first applied, inks for those pens were usually black or bluish black. Over time, most aged to a brown color. As a rule, very old autographs show a brown halo caused by migration of the liquid agent (usually linseed oil) that held black pigment (usually lamp black.)
Signatures signed in ball point pen started appearing in the 1950s. Although uncommon, you will occasionally find genuine old certificates low signed with ball-point pens. Although no malice or deception may have been intended, those kinds of documents are nothing more than very low-quality forgeries. Although the earliest patent was issued in 1888, the modern ball-point pen was not invented until about 1935. Even then, the earliest devices serious problems with ink flow. You can be certain that any certificate signed with a ball-point pen before 1935 is very likely a forgery. In practice, the first successful ball point pen was sold in large quantities in 1945. Therefore, any certificate signed in ball point before late 1945 should be highly questionable.
Facsimile signatures are printed, usually by an offset or intaglio press, but sometimes applied by rubber stamp. It is sometimes hard to distinguish facsimile signatures from autographs. The surest way to tell the difference is to flip the certificate over. Fountain pen ink normally soaked through the paper while printed facsimile ink did not. Real autographs normally dented the paper and the evidence can be seen most easily from the back. Another method is to look closely where one pen stroke crossed another. If the junction of the two strokes is exactly the same shade as the surrounding pen strokes, you’re probably dealing with a facsimile. (Experiment with both fountain pens and ball-point pens to see how the ink becomes heavier where pen strokes cross.)
Facsimile signatures are common on recent stocks and bonds, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when they first appeared. The New York Central used pre-printed officers’ autographs in the 1940s and thereafter. The earliest recorded facsimile signature in the database is currently attributed to a New York Central specimen (NEW-530-Ss-65) from 1914. Facsimile autograpgs are fairly common on railroad passes dated in the mid-1880s.
There is no easy way to discriminate between Autopen signatures and genuine handwritten signatures. Generally, you need several certificates for comparison. If several signatures are identical in flow and appearance, you have a mechanically-made signature. If the signatures vary considerably, you probably have genuine signatures. (Notable exceptions are the signatures of the U.S. Presidents where several different auto-signing machines may be used concurrently.)
Authenticity is a very serious issue with autographs. Fortunately, the engraving on stocks and bonds is usually so complex, and certificates are still so cheap, that counterfeiting of whole documents makes little sense. However, forgers can buy unissued certificates and add fake signatures. They can also remove worthless signatures from issued certificates and substitute forgeries of valuable autographs.
As of late 2010, stock and bond autograph forgeries have proven rare. At some point, that will change as autographs grow increasingly valuable. Protect yourself as much as possible by buying autographs from reputable, established dealers who unequivocally guarantee their products. For valuable signatures, seek expert authentication from one or more third party appraisers completely separate from sellers. Contact one or more of the dealers I have listed on the dealer's page. Please, do not ask me to authenticate autographs. I leave that to the experts in the field of autographs.
Finally, read these books:
Collecting Autographs and Manuscripts
Think you have some special radar that would allow you to detect an autograph forgery? Think again and please read:
Salamander: the story of the Mormon forgery murders
Prices for autographed issues
Autograph collecting is a separate hobby that happens to involve stocks and bonds. Autographs of famous people add significantly to values of otherwise common stocks and bonds. Autograph collecting can be highly profitable. Taken as a group, autographs have historically shown excellent price growth. They are popular investments.
Fame and autograph demand
Generally, the richer and more influential the individual, the more collectors demand his or her signature.
Autographs from last century’s millionaires are usually in high demand. Autographs from heirs and offspring are worth much less than their illustrious parents. Signatures from celebrity spouses are usually in less demand except among specialist collectors.
Unless individuals were notorious, rich, or both, autographs of company officers are seldom sought after. Autographs from persons of pure celebrity (movie stars, composers, sports figures) are valued roughly in comparison with their enduring fame. The perceived value of autographs from politicians, military figures, judges, crooks, and other notables roughly track the degree of their national impact.
Presently, the most 'valuable' rail-related autograph is that of Andrew Carnegie. It appeared on a Pullman Palace Car stock certificate It sold for over $70,000 in the 1999 R.M. Smythe sale at Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Other extremely valuable autographs include 'Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad and the Vanderbilt dynasty. His signature is extremely rare on railroad certificates. Signatures from Jay Gould, on items other than MKT stocks, are also extremely valuable.
The pricing of autographs is problematic
The so-called value of autographs depends on one thing – how important buyers think an autograph should be. One buyer may be completely enamored with the 'get it done' tenacity of John Casement as he drove the Union Pacific westward across the continent. Another buyer might wonder, 'So what?'
The value of every autograph is personal.
The values of autographs in the catalog come primarily from prices realized at auctions. In most cases, auction prices represent competition between two or more bidders. Prices in fixed-price catalogs will usually be higher.
Look before you leap
Buy autographs cautiously, especially when you are first starting. Study all aspects of autograph collecting before you invest. Prices will be cyclic. Autograph prices CAN AND DO FALL! Financial returns can be wonderful or pitiful.
Think about resale
Because of potential profits, and losses, autograph collecting is often equated with investing. Consequently, when you collect autographs, you should always keep an eye on potential resale.
Never buy an autograph before you assess its future. Ask yourself, as dispassionately as possible, whether you think future collectors will think a particular signature as desirable as you do. Commodore Vanderbilt’s autographs are easy. But what about Henry Clews’?
Uncontrollable events affect values
Random events affect people’s impressions about the importance of specific autographs. For example, consider the 1869 Selma Marion & Memphis Railroad bond. All were signed by Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In 1989, bonds with his signature routinely sold for $150 to $250. Then came along Public Television’s broadcast of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in 1990. Within months, dealers in a wide range of hobbies noticed an unprecedented interest in every kind of collectible related to the Civil War. By 1992, Selma Memphis & Marion bonds were selling for as much as $900. By 1994, auction prices had topped $1,100. They topped out in the $2,500 to $3,000 range and have since dropped substantially.
Outside events can also lower values and salability of autographs. You can see notable examples with signatures of World War I personalities. They were in very high demand during the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, interest in World War I autographs dropped significantly. Prices are still low considering their age and historical significance.