In their glory days, paper stock certificates were mini-artworks, embellished with engraved images of eagles, cherubs, Gold Rush miners and sheaves of wheat. Or even sexy Playboy centerfolds.Today, they're financial-document dinosaurs, going the paperless way of U.S. savings bonds and Social Security checks. In an era of instant electronic stock trading, getting a paper stock certificate is downright difficult."It's a bygone era," said Cameron Beck, investment adviser with UBS Financial Services in Sacramento, Calif.Beck said it has been more than 10 years since a client even asked for a paper certificate.And when clients do ask, companies like UBS and Charles Schwab charge $500 to handle the transaction.While most of Wall Street's publicly traded companies will issue paper shares if asked, more than 420 companies -- including Apple, Chevron, Intel and Visa -- no longer do. According to the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., stock trading could be virtually paper-free in three to five years.But even as paper certificates disappear from the financial world, they live on as specialty gifts and collectibles, whether for sentimental, artistic or history-laden reasons."They struck a chord with me," said Dick Brothers of Sacramento, a retired state government IT manager who inherited about 20 turn-of-the-century gold and copper mining company stock certificates from his grandfather."They're part of our family's history," said Brothers, whose grandfather, Arthur Buel, was editorial cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee and Fresno Bee papers from 1922 until 1942.Even with a long-dead company, there can be collector value in many old stock certificates.Websites like Scripophily.com and OldStocks.com buy and sell vintage stock and bond certificates. Collectors value them for their artwork, historical significance, personal company connections or famous signatures, said Bob Kerstein, CEO of Chantilly, Va.-based Scripophily.com.The highest price paid on Scripophily: $125,000 for an 1880s Standard Oil Co. certificate signed by John D. Rockefeller. Other rarities include Civil War-era bonds issued by the Confederacy.Among paper shares on Scripophily's most-wanted list: Playboy stock from the 1970s and '80s that featured a voluptuous engraving of a reclining centerfold.Susan Platt of Gold River, Calif., has one. She bought it in the 1970s -- "as a joke gift" -- for her father, a longtime investor who hung it in the family's rec room."He loved it. He had lots of paper stock certificates," said Platt, "but none like that." While some lament the disappearing paper stock certificate, brokers and industry experts say trading them is problematic and expensive. There's the risk of losing them in a fire, flood or theft; long-term storage and safety concerns; delays in buying and selling paper shares, which must be authenticated and physically transferred between buyer and seller.While paper certificates may be disappearing, there are ways to find them.Sites like OneShare.com and GiveAShare.com let you buy a single share -- in paper form -- from big-name companies, from Harley-Davidson to Tiffany & Co.In a digital world, there's an undeniable appeal to paper stock certificates. UBS adviser Beck himself keeps framed paper shares of Pixar, the animated cartoon company that was bought by Disney, in his two kids' names.
As of 2009, the federal government and all states no longer require publicly traded companies to issue paper stock certificates. Most companies still issue them if requested.
Even if a company offers paper shares, brokerages charge as much as $500 to handle them. To obtain a paper share at no charge, contact the company's transfer agent (listed on the company's annual report or website). Or ask your broker to purchase stock in "direct registration" in your name (there may be a fee).
To check if a defunct company's paper certificate holds any value, contact the stock's transfer agent, your broker or the secretary of state's office where the company was located.