HOLMES BEACH -- The green-tinted parchment-like paper Edna Erven holds onto -- uncovered in her late husband's documents -- presents a challenge to the Holmes Beach woman.
The old paper stock certificates represent a part of her husband's family history, investments his grandfather, Scott Morris, made in Illinois companies during the 1800s.
Companies like Dixon Hedge & Wire Fence Co. and the Automatic Car Coupling Co. of Brookville, Ill., that no longer exist.
Since her husband's death in 2000 when she stumbled upon the certificates, Erven has tried to find out what worth, if any, the stock certificates have.
"They are so ornate and beautiful," she said. "Two aren't signed so I know they haven't been cashed in."
Maybe there is hidden money in their beauty, Erven reasons.
Bob Kerstein, who relishes the often artistically designed certificates, says most people like Erven will find that the stock certificates they unearth in attics and file cabinets are worth more as collectors items than anything else.
Kerstein operates a website called Scripophily.com, which conducts online auctions of paper stock. He also researches companies' histories.
With today's stock trading dominated by rapid-fire computers and instantaneous trading, paper certificates only slow down the process, experts say. Requirements for transferring stock shares once they are sold are getting shorter and shorter and signing over paper certificates rather than making digital transfers is unwieldy.
The Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., which handles most of the administrative underpinning of stock trading in the United States, set a goal this summer to eliminate paper stocks, perhaps as early as 2015.
But some investors, especially seniors, like the security owning a piece of paper gives them versus looking at numbers on a computer screen.
Companies are moving away from
issuing paper stock shares. About 700 companies no longer do. Yet 6,300 public companies still do.
The most valued stocks for a collector are ones that could be described as works of art, with intricate drawings and artistic touches such as gild-edge paper. Stocks that have been signed by a famous person or have been touched by a controversial or historical event also can demand hundreds of dollars, Kerstein said.
"Enron or Lehman Brothers stock is popular," he said. "Anything signed by John D. Rockefeller."
Mike Ohlman, a financial adviser with Raymond James in Lakewood Ranch, has seen his share of investors still clinging to "files full of worthless certificates."
If a company has gone out of business, its charter has been revoked or it has merged with another company, it is usually almost impossible to redeem unpaid stock, Kerstein said.
He advises paper stock holders to only hold onto their certificates as collectibles.
"It can work against them," Kerstein said. "If they have stock in Apple, which is worth around $700 a share, do they turn it in or sell it as a collectible?"
Erven has been on the trail of discovery long enough to know she'll keep looking until she finds out whether her paper stocks are valuable or not.
"I'm not giving up," she said with a smile.