Formerly a coal geologist, Terry Cox now makes maps and databases for the minerals industry from his office in Arvada, CO. Recently, we talked about his interest in railroad stock and bond certificates.
ephemera: How did you become interested in railroad stock certificates?
Cox: Like many kids who grew up in the 1950s, I had numerous beginner-level coin collections. However, I had always been intrigued by the engravings on paper money and by 1984 had a small mail order business selling paper money. I eventually took on consignments and branched out into souvenir cards, Confederate bonds, engravings, and related ephemera.
One consignor convinced me to try to sell railroad stocks and bonds. After all, he pointed out, the security printing companies and engravers that made paper money also made certificates.
Knowing little about the subject, I collected books, auction catalogs, and dealers' lists, but only found five publications that classified as guide books. I suddenly realized that while those five books listed 739 different varieties of railroad stocks and bonds, they barely scratched the surface. I already had 50 additional certificates on my desk that weren't cataloged. I reasoned that the only way to get an exhaustive price list was to create a database of descriptions and prices for myself. My list grew quickly, and by 1993 I had cataloged more than 7,000 distinct varieties of certificates. Fred Schwan of BNR Press agreed to publish the first edition of my catalog, but by the time it went to press in early 1995, the database had grown to 8,559 certificates. The project showed no signs of slowing. My catalog project kept growing and became hard to control. By asking for help from other collectors in the U.S. and Europe, the database and related Web site grew to the point where today, I now list over 23,000 certificates.
I discovered long ago that I am really more interested in collecting information than I am in collecting paper. I guess I don't have a fully functional "collecting gene." Don't get me wrong, I still have over 3,000 items for sale on my Papermental.com site, and I truly enjoy acquiring paper for re-sale. I just don't feel a need to own much paper for myself.
ephemera: You've had an amazing career in this field. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter as a cataloger? How do you overcome these challenges?
Cox: Lack of time is my single greatest challenge. I self-published the second edition of my catalog in 2003 and hope to publish the third edition in 2009. Now that I have a large presence on the web, I get new questions and contributions several times each day. Quite literally, I could spend every working moment on this project and still fall behind. My method of handling the constant flood of questions is to publish my answers as soon as possible. I answer all email and letter inquiries, but then I try to organize my answers into new web pages and articles for my quarterly newsletter. That way, I can direct repetitive inquiries to stock answers in only a minute or two.
Handling the numerous contributions from collectors took a technical solution. I keep all my information in a Microsoft Access database. I have created many customized data search and entry screens that help minimize the amount of time spent locating entries. If you have ever used field guides to identify plants or animals, you have a good idea of how I organize certificates, descriptions, serial numbers, prices, and images. At one time, my most unmanageable problem involved links to eBay sales. I was already retrieving all sales of railroad certificates on eBay, but hundreds of collectors wanted to help. It was easy for them to send links. Unfortunately, the links became much too numerous. It got so bad that at one time I received links to the same items from as many as ten contributors. Ultimately, I had to plead with my contributors to stop sending links to eBay sales.
ephemera: eBay is the double-edge sword of collecting, especially in regard to ephemera-related material. We've discussed eBay's impact here with numerous collectors. I'm fascinated by the "eBay effect". What are your favorite items in the collection? Do you have a crowning jewel or show stopper in your collection? If so, what is it?
Cox: Most of my contributors tell me they got into collecting certificates because of the beautiful quality and details of engravings that appear on stocks and bonds. While I do not collect certificates per se, I do buy certificates for illustration purposes. It is extremely common to be able to find the same vignette used on many different stocks and bonds, often from several different companies. Therefore, if I need a particular vignette for the purposes of illustration, I will buy certificates. I seldom care about the company on whose certificates my images appear.
Crown jewel? Not really. I am a big, big fan of anything engraved by James Smillie, G.F.C Smillie, Charles Skinner, Louis Delnoce and several others. I have 40 or 50 favorite vignettes. Therefore, I guess you could say that I have a couple hundred favorite certificates.
Cox: The five catalogs that helped me get started are getting hard to find, but are still available through numismatic book sellers. I still recommend them all, especially if you want to collect something other than railroad certificates. There are three small volumes by George LaBarre titled, Collecting stocks and bonds,1981. A little harder to find are Bill Yatchman's The Stock and Bond Collectors Price Guide, 1984 and Anne-Marie Hendy's American Railroad Stock Certificates, 1980. Another superb reference is a coffee-table book by Bob Tamarkin and Les Krantz titled, Art of the Market: Two Centuries of American Business as Seen Through Its Stock Certificates<. (1999, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.) As I mentioned, stocks and bonds are closely related to both the companies and engravers that made paper money. Therefore, the MUST-HAVE reference for the art of security engraving is Gene Hessler's The Engraver's Line, BNR Press, 1993. There are currently no magazines in this country dedicated to collecting stocks and bonds. However, I most emphatically recommend joining the International Bond and Share Society, which publishes its quarterly magazine, Scripophily. I am honored to write a column for that publication.
ephemera: Thanks, Terry. I've really enjoyed this interview, and I know a lot ephemera enthusiasts will find your comments fascinating and highly educational.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.