Beware of uniformed promotions

Who is selling?

When professional dealers use the word "rare," they are probably correct. To them, "rare" means, "I've been in the business for _______ years and I don't remember seeing more than one or two."

What does it mean If an amateur seller uses the word "rare" in a description? Usually, nothing more than they haven't seen a particular certificate before.


Handwritten and typewritten certificates are every bit as legal as superb engraved examples. There are very few known and they are seen for sale only occasionally, yet they seldom fetch prices commensurate with their rarity. This stock certificate was issued by the Acme Tap Railroad of Texas.(Courtesy John Martin)

This word is a favorite of amateur eBay sellers. Whenever I see this word in a description, I always wish I had the capability to insert word "NOT" in big red capital letters.

If a seller has never seen a particular stock or bond before, they are bound to think it is rare. In those cases, the word is used innocently and merely reflects a lack of experience. One of the problems of even thinking about using the word "rare" is that it forms a bubble of self-delusion. Say it enough times and it becomes believable.

But there are also sellers who use the term purposely and deceptively. These are the people who have a stack of twenty or thirty identical certificates, call them "RARE," and sell them for $15.

Please tell me why anyone would sell a genuinely "rare" certificate for $15?

Just ignore the word. The majority of the time, "rare" is simply not true. In fact, as I write this, I found 116 rail-related items offered on eBay with the word "rare" in the title. There were even more with "rare" in descriptions. Yes, a few of those were scarce, if not actually "rare." However, I also saw these:

  • A listing of two "RARE" certificates offered for $9.99. If listed separately, the items would probably have sold for about $15 apiece on eBay.
  • A Baltimore & Ohio certificate signed by John Garrett listed for $9.99. Garrett signatures on B&O certs are quite common.
  • A "VERY RARE" bond offered for $28. In truth, a fair price for the certificate would have been $25-$35. The seller making the offer had already sold twelve examples of the same certificate on eBay. I suspect there is a probable population of 500 or more.
  • A "Rare" Baltimore & Ohio stock certificate, (1930 <100 sh common) offered for $48. This variety is readily available in large quantities.
  • A "RARE" remainder was listed for $62. This certificate came out of a lot of 125 sold by R.M. Smythe in 1993 for $1.62 each. Going prices today are about $25.
  • A "Rare" certificate listed for $1,250. This certificate was, in fact, quite rare. However, it would probably fetch $300, maybe as much as $400 in a professional auction.
  • A "Rare" 1950s Pennsylvania Railroad certificate was offered for $24.99. Similar items regularly sell for $5 to $7 on eBay.

A collectible with only a hundred known would be considered "rare" in several other hobbies. In this hobby, a variety a hundred certificates known might be considered "scarce," but definitely not rare.


Eugene Zimmerman was a notable company exec, and his signatures are scarce except on bonds of the Northern Alabama Coal, Iron & Railway Co, but his autographs rarely fetch elevated prices. (Courtesy Vern Alexander)

Although not as frequently as I have seen in the past, there is still occasional hype about second-, third-, and fourth-tier celebrity signatures having value. I am not saying specialists would not pay extra for signatures from specific, obscure individuals. However, just because there might be a small market among specialists for obscurities does NOT mean those very same signatures will have value among general collectors nor does it mean that a current price will hold into the future. The hard truth is that not all so-called "celebrity autographs" have value.

Try to do a count sometime of the number of people who are currently serving as governors, senators, representatives, and judges at just the state and federal levels. Then expand that number to get an estimate of the number of people who have served in those positions since the founding of the country. Don't forget to include territories, past and present.

After estimating that number, add in military personalities that achieved the rank of general. Generals were very popular in the Civil War, so the task of identifying that number should be a fun starting point. Of course, some men were promoted to the rank of general after the War or after death, so the task is not as simple as might seem.

How about presidents of railroads? There have been roughly 28,000 railroads founded in North America since the 1820s. Some people served as presidents of multiple companies so the number of presidential signatures would be hard to calculate. Nonetheless, I would expect that a low guess would be in the range of 35,000 to 40,000 individuals.

Of course, there were also a goodly number of people who were famous for the sake of being famous. either through birth, marriage or actual achievement.

There are probably 100,000 people who someone label as a "celebrity." It is absurd beyond belief to say all their signatures have value today. More absurd still would be to say they will have enhanced value tomorrow.

Nonetheless, amateur eBay sellers hype names as having extra value as autographs. I will put it bluntly. If a collector does not already know why someone is "famous" and whose signature will have value in the future, they should never get hot and bothered and think they need to pay extra money for it some name they have never heard of.

Low numbers

#1 certificates usually fetch notable premiums, and #1s from large companies like the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad are particularly hard to come by. (Courtesy William Knadler)

Hypes about certificates having "low serial numbers" appear several times a year on eBay. Almost without exception, those listings involve numbers below 100 being hyped as "low serial numbers." I've seen a few of those promotions that involved numbers over 1,000. Although 1,000 is low compared to 100,000, it is fair to ask, "What low numbers have value?"

It is dangerous to even answer that question, because I have seen a few certificates with serial #1 sell for no premium whatsoever.

Admittedly, those occurrences are exceptions because there are many advanced collectors who seek #1 serials. I have recorded premiums that have ranged from 10% to as much as 100%. I'd say 25% to 40% is probably about average. Premiums for certificates with serial #2 are much lower. Certificate prices are so naturally variable, that it is often difficult to detect any premiums being paid. If forced to make a guess, I'd say #2s would fetch premiums of 10% to 15%.

I have spotted a few premiums apparently being paid for serial #3, but not routinely.

Because companies commonly continued stock certificate numbering from issuance to issuance, the lowest serial numbers for many stock certificate varieties might be in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands. 

I have seen one case where a collector specialized in a higher number and gladly paid premiums whenever he found certificates with that number.

Collectors can pay premiums for whatever serial number they desire, but I warn them to avoid having someone else tell them what they should and not be excited about. I will suggest that serials about #2 do not show any dependable premiums at this point in the evolution of our hobby


Consistent strong prices indicate certificates from the Harrisburg Portsmouth Mount Joy & Lancaster Rail Road Co are desirable in any condition. (Courtesy Kevin Nesbitt.)

The majority of the collectors I've encountered in this hobby have migrated from coins, currency and stamps and those hobbies are typified by strong premiums for better conditions. Our hobby is typified by certificates that have been formally issued as securities, and therefore should show evidence of ownership, transfer, and cancellation.

As long as there is evidence of having been used as securities, there are definitely premiums paid for better conditions, Those premiums are not remotely similar to the premiums paid in coins, currency and stamps. Issued but uncancelled certificates commonly show some  condition-related premiums. Please understand, however, that just because a certificate lacks physical cancellation does NOT mean the certificate was not formally cancelled on company books.

There are reasons for the lack of strong condition-related premiums in our hobby, but the most important is the low population of collectors. Until that number is vastly improved, prices will reflect desirability rather than condition. I advise collectors to purchase certificates in the best condition possible, but not at the expense of desirability. Desirability will always trump condition in the current state of the hobby.

What about "Not in Cox?"

If you've collected certificates for a while, you have probably seen certificate descriptions that say "not in Cox". I am honored to find my name among the collecting lexicon, but let's talk about what the phrase means.

What "not in Cox" means

Chances are, the phrase is being used to suggest that a new variety is being offered for sale and that it is probably scarce or rare. That may be completely true. But remember, just because something is scarce, does necessarily mean it is valuable. Rarity does NOT automatically convey extra value.

The phrase usually means I had not seen reference to a particular certificate by September, 201, when the third edition was published. Never mind that well over 2,000 varieties and sub-varieties have been added by contributors, auctions and dealer inventories since that time. All those new listings are online and available for everyone to see on this website.

As I write this in late, 2022, records show I added 466 new varieties and sub-varieties in the last 365 days. While new varieties and sub-varieties appear in waves when I catalog auctions, there is a good chance another previously-uncataloged certificate will show up tomorrow.

Newly-found certificates do not normally achieve their highest prices at first listing

The first appearance of a new certificate might be the first of a hoard to be released. Truthfully, that has not proven very likely. A new certificate might be a one-only, in which case there may not be another purchasing opportunity for years or even decades. If turns out to be the first of a small group, then the highest prices tend to occur on the appearance of a second or third certificate. After that, even if the "hoard" consists of only five or ten certificates, prices tend to drop with each new appearance. A new "hoard" does not need to be large, and usually isn't.

Does the phrase "not in Cox" affect prices?

I have analyzed the potential effect four times over about fifteen years and cannot find any relationship. In some sales, I thought "not in Cox" had positively affected prices, until I analyzed the number of unsold items and found "not in Cox" listings among them. The short answer is that I have never seen a predictable relationship, either positive or negative, between prices paid and the use of the phrase "not in Cox".

Again... I am deeply honored when sellers use the phrase "not in Cox," but I don't think it works as a dependable promotion.