Is my old stock from the Money Back Oil Company worth anything?
Whatever happened to the _____ company in ______ ? My
parents worked there for years.
The question of company history usually arises when patrons
find old stock certificates or bonds among their own or
their relatives' papers, sometimes when settling an estate.
There are other reasons to ask, though. Patrons may be curious
to know what happened to a company in their old neighborhood
or home town, or family historians may be interested in a company
at which a forebear spent her or his working life. Those who are
interested in company history, whatever their purpose, would consult
the same sources.
Things to Know
Where to Start
For Further Information
Things to Know
First try to verify the company name, because names
that sound distinctive now may have been common in years past.
Also, try to determine whether the company was incorporated
and in which state, when it existed, and where its offices were
located. If you have a stock certificate, it will provide quite
a bit of this information, and sometimes more.
Before we get started, a little background to explain the reasons for
searching where we do.
If you have a stock certificate, that means that the company has been
incorporated. What does incorporation mean?
Corporations are created
under state law to protect business owners from personal
liability when conducting business. Certain records are kept
by the state under whose laws the company was incorporated,
making that a prime place to search for company information.
Be aware that the state of incorporation and the location
of the company need not be the same. Note also that words
in the company name such as "Corporation" or "Incorporated,"
or abbreviations such as "Corp." or "Inc.," indicate but
don't guarantee that a company is incorporated. Likewise,
the absence of these words doesn't guarantee that a
company is not incorporated.
Even when a company has incorporated, it doesn't imply that
muchor anyinformation will be readily available,
or even that a company is public. Private or closely held companies
do not sell their stock to the public. Unlisted companies can sell
their stock to the public but are not listed on stock exchanges.
To the frustration of librarians and patrons, most company information
that's published covers the disproportionately small number of
companies whose stock is traded on one of the major stock
exchanges; details about unlisted and private companies
often are hard to come by.
A company need not be incorporated in order to conduct
business. It may have been organized as a sole proprietorship
(one owner) or a partnership. By definition, such businesses
do not have stock.
Under Illinois law, unincorporated businesses that
conduct business under a name other than the personal
name of the owner(s) must register their business name
in each county in which they conduct or transact business.
This is to make sure that customers and creditors of
the business can find out who stands behind the business.
Other states have similar laws.
These company names go by the cloak-and-dagger moniker of
assumed or fictitious business names.
In Illinois, the county clerk registers assumed business names.
In some states, the office that registers corporations also
keeps fictitious or assumed business name
If it looks like a stock certificate...it isn't necessarily
one. A close reading can distinguish stock certificates
from other kinds of documents that resemble them, such as
"a voluntary joint stock association unincorporated" and
various kinds of trusts. Some of the same search strategies
may work, however, especially for bonds. If SLS Reference
serves your library, please feel free to send us a question
and we'll find out what we can, based on the information in
the document. Be sure to include a copy.
Where to Start
Given a stock certificate or a company name, first consult
current company directories and investment sources to
determine whether the company still exists by the same name.
Sources like the Directory of Corporate Affiliations
and America's Corporate Families® are helpful
because they list subsidiaries and divisions, some of
which were freestanding companies that have been merged into
larger entities. If a company has merged or has been acquired,
contact the Investor Relations or Shareholder Services department
of the successor company to ask whether shares may still be
redeemed and, if so, what process must be followed.
Some companies outsource the functions of their shareholder services
departments, such as keeping track of shareholders to notify them of
meetings or send reports, or to transfer shares when stock is bought
and sold. Businesses that do this are called stock transfer agents.
A stock certificate may identify a transfer agent. The
Securities Transfer Association
maintains a free Web database of its members, with contact information,
searchable by the name of either the company or the transfer agent.
If they're available, search sources that cover corporate capital
history: changes of name, mergers and acquisitions, reincorporation
in a different state, liquidation or reorganization under the
bankruptcy laws, or going private (when all outstanding stock
is bought by a few people and shares are no longer sold to the
public). These sources are:
- the annual Directory of Obsolete Securities. Because editions
are cumulative, older editions may contain helpful information.
- Capital Adjustments and Capital Changes Reports
- Moody's (now Mergent's) Manuals, for those companies
large enough be included
- the International Directory of Company Histories
If a company is fairly old, the "Fisher manuals" might help.
This work compiles the results of several decades of research
on old stock certificates by the company now known as
R. M. Smythe.
The set consists of 12 volumes on microfilm and 3 volumes
in print. The entry for each company includes the date its stock
was deemed worthless. The set covers all 50 states from the
early 20th century into the 1980s.
Because the Fisher manuals are cumbersome and laborious to use,
it helps to know the exact company name, the state of incorporation,
and the date of the stock certificate before researching a company.
SLS Reference Service owns the Fisher manuals and can search them
for member and contracting libraries.
Corporations are governed by state law, so if the
state of incorporation is known, it can be a shortcut
to call the state office where corporations must register.
These records can show a change of name, a date of
dissolution, or even that the company still exists.
Some states will answer queries about corporate status by phone
without charge, although some have adopted 900 numbers, charge fees
for research, or require a written request. Increasingly, states
are making corporate records available through the Web. The
National Association of Secretaries
of State links to the office in each state for
Registration and Filing Services.
When contacting state agencies for corporate status,
make sure to ask (and note) the dates covered by the search.
Sometimes thr records for inactive companies are separated
from those for active ones and will be searched only
upon request, sometimes written.
For Illinois corporations, call the office of the
Illinois Secretary of State's
Department of Business Services in Chicago, +1 (312) 793 3380,
or in Springfield, +1 (217) 782 7880. Illinois records
are separated into "active" and "history" databases,
depending upon whether the corporation is currently
in operation, so be sure the operator checks both. You can
also search the Web at
The lack of a record doesn't mean that the company
no longer exists. It may have abandoned its charter in
one state and reincorporated in another. Records are
not cross-referenced among different states, so
the original state of incorporation may not be able to
tell you if a company has changed its domicile.
The introduction to the Directory of Obsolete Securities
cautions that, since canceled corporate charters can be
reinstatedthough few areit is wise to double check
with state offices even if you find the company listed as defunct
in other sources.
Some states include assumed or fictitious business names for unincorporated
businesses in the same databases as their records for corporations. If you
phone, ask, or if you search the Web, look for an explanation of which
records are included.
If you are looking for a business that existed decades ago, try the sources
you'd use to research family history: old city or telephone directories,
local newspapers, city and county histories. This is especially true for
unincorporated companies, which tend to be smaller, more local, and
shorter-lived than corporations.
If you can't determine what happened to a company using the sources discussed above,
patrons may choose to have the stock of incorporated companies searched by a company
that specializes in that kind of research. A representative of
Stock Search International Inc.
has stated that 85 to 90 percent of corporations leave no assets when their charters
are dissolved, but the occasional old stock certificate or bond can net its owner
thousands of dollars. R. M. Smythe's
and Bond Research gives examples of windfalls received by owners of apparently
worthless stock certificates.
For names and addresses of stock search firms, see the current edition of
Maloney's Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory or the
Securities Page. Your patrons may be interested to know that stock
search firms charge substantial fees to search many of the same sources
located in SLS libraries. However, these companies can search records
in other places not accessible to SLS Reference Service, such as bankruptcy
courts and state unclaimed property offices, and some have the benefit of
their own records compiled over many years.
So the company went out of business leaving no shareholders' equity?
Don't give up yet! Stock certificates that are worthless as securities
may have some value as collectibles;
Search International has estimated that about 15 to 20 percent do.
The hobby of collecting old commercial paper is called scripophily.
Some scripophilists value old financial documents because of the people
who signed them or owned them: for example, an 1881 Standard Oil Company
stock signed by John D. Rockefeller, or an 1888 railroad stock issued to
Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some collectors appreciate them because of an interest
in history and others because of the design or quality of the engraving.
For more information about the hobby of scripophily, visit
Scripophily from the International Bond and Share Society.
Find collectors and dealers in Maloney's book and at Goldsheet's
Dealers and Organizations. Some have posted catalogs online.
Price guides for collectible stocks are listed in library catalogs
under the heading STOCK CERTIFICATES, and they are often included
in price guides for all kinds of paper collectibles, under the
subject heading PRINTED EPHEMERA; see especially the subheading
�COLLECTORS AND COLLECTING. Also try the keywords "paper collectibles."
R.M. Smythe's Book
Shop sells many specialized titles about scripophily. Remember,
price guides report past sales; contact an expert or dealer
for an idea of the current market and coming trends.
Here's what librarians can do when asked about
corporate stocks, bonds, and company history.
Ask the patron for a copy of the stock certificate. This
will give the company's legal name and state (or territory,
if prior to statehood, or Canadian province) of incorporation,
distinguishing it from others with the same or similar names.
The date on the stock certificate indicates when the company
If the stock certificate shows a transfer agent and you can
locate it, contact it.
Try business directories, city directories, and periodical
indexes, both current ones and also those covering the
time when the company was active. These sources may reveal
that a company has been acquired by or has merged with
another, has become a division or subsidiary of another company,
or has changed its name. Tip: Don't forget phone directories
and the Web.
Search sources that report corporate capital events,
obsolete securities, or company history: the
Directory of Obsolete Securities, Capital Adjustments,
Capital Changes, the Fisher manuals, or the
International Directory of Company Histories.
If you discover that a company has merged into or
been acquired by a company that currently exists, contact
the successor company's investor relations or shareholder
services department about redeeming the stock.
Contact the state's corporate records office by phone,
mail, or the Web. For unincorporated businesses,
contact the appropriate county or state agency.
Give the patron contact information for a stock search firm.
Search price guides that cover collectible stock certificates.
Give the patron contact information for an appraiser,
collector, expert, or dealer in old commercial paper.
Librarians in libraries served by SLS Reference Service
may send a
request. Please include a copy of the stock certificate, front
and back. If you fax it, it's a good idea to phone to make sure the
fax is legible.
For Further Information
Here's a list of the sources mentioned
above and some others of interest.
- America's Corporate Families®.
Dun & Bradstreet, annual.
- Directory of Corporate Affiliations.
"Who Owns Whom." New Providence, NJ: National Register Publishing,
- Capital Adjustments. Prentice Hall, o.p.
- Capital Changes Reports. Chicago:
+1 (800) TELL CCH or +1 (847) 267-7000
- Directory of Obsolete Securities.
Jersey City, NJ: Financial Information Inc. Annual.
- International Directory of Company
Histories. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988� .
- Fisher Manuals. R. M. Smythe.
This 15-volume set has been published under several titles:
volumes 1 to 4 as the Marvyn Scudder Manual of Extinct or
Obsolete Companies, volume 5 as the Robert D. Fisher
Manual of Extinct or Obsolete Companies, and volumes 6
to 15 as the Robert D. Fisher Manual of Valuable and
Volumes 1 to 12, on microfilm, are o.p. Copies of volumes 13
(1971), 14 (1975), and 15 (1984) may be available. Contact
Smythe. When I last spoke to a representative, the company
had no plans to reissue the Fisher Manuals in any form.
Obsolete Securities Page