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Hey Dude! Where's My Company? Stocks from Nonexistent Businesses

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1814, Aug., Stock certificate for one share of H.R. Steamboat Co. made out to Samuel Jones, Jr., Digital ID rf_0961814, New York Public LibraryAn ancient stock certificate found in a drawer after someone dies; selling shares that grandma gave us a long time ago; investment paperwork lost in a move. The stories all seem different, but in each case the question is the same — what has happened to a company since these shares of stock were purchased?

Where can we find the sad stories of the death of companies? Perhaps a company has gone into bankruptcy, succumbed to a hostile takeover, been sold to the highest bidder, changed its ticker symbol, its name, or its forms — oftentimes in a confusing flurry of transactions. All gone. Or at least so it appears. Many companies may survive, but the connection between their fore and aft identities seems uncertain.

For a great many of these questions received at SIBL, our first recommendation for a point of reference has generally been Capital Changes Reporter. This Commerce Clearing House multi-volume set is now included in our recently added electronic resource, Wolters Kluwer's CCH Omnitax Library (reported on earlier in these blog posts). The research need it is intended to fill — a history of changes in corporate capital or debt structures — is very often done for tax purposes, which explains why it is included in Omnitax. Of course there may be other reasons why readers will want to use it and some situations where other resources may be more appropriate.

Stock Certificate, Digital ID 1599697, New York Public LibraryScripophily. Not the kind of disease that can be cured by the touch of kings, although some consider collecting a form of addiction. Collecting stock certificates and bonds for their artistic or historical value (The Art of the Market: Two Centuries of American Business as Seen Through Its Stock Certificates) is often the last form in which obsolete stocks (and canceled certificates of existing companies) retain value. Besides Capital Changes Reporter, a few other sources we have that can help identify a certificate as obsolete are SIBL's Annual Guide to Stocks and the Robert D. Fisher Manual of Valuable & Worthless Securities. For some other tips on researching old stock and bond certificates, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a helpful page. Some of the resources mentioned are in NYPL's collection as well. We'd be happy to help you with them if you are interested.

Disclosure: I have managed to limit my personal collection of certificates to one. The certificate itself isn't necessarily outstanding, but the letter that came with it is really rather interesting. Ah, to have occupied Wall Street in those days before the U.S. Securities Laws!

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