I’ve been involved in several conversations lately concerning collaboration and cooperation. I don’t have any earth-shaking ideas to share, but I would like to offer a few observations.
Part of my thoughts concern my project of cataloging railroad certificates. It is a project that started more like an accident than any grand purpose. I had been selling collectible currency, Confederate bonds and related documents for a few years. I experimented with consignment selling because I was not a good buyer; I always paid too much. One of my long-time customers asked if I would sell some of his railroad stocks and bonds and I agreed to try. The problem was, I had no idea what his certificates were worth.
I decided to start researching certificates and recording prices and descriptions from all the auction catalogs, price lists and guidebooks I could find. Gathering information was not a stretch because I was already compiling lots of information about coal mines, coal sales and transportation in my line of work.
About that same time, I was a geologist with a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Corporation. I was helping clean out a warehouse when I stumbled across glass plates of coal mining scenes around Rock Springs and Hanna, Wyoming. There were three wooden boxes of plates that I suspected were by famous photographer William Henry Jackson. The plates needed to be preserved, so I contacted the curator of the Union Pacific museum. In our conversations, he learned about my little side project of railroad certificates, so he sent me a spreadsheet list of all the stock certificates in the museum collection.
What started out as a spreadsheet of names, certificate types, short descriptions and prices quickly migrated to a full-fledged database and that ultimately turned into the first edition of Stocks and Bonds of North American Railroads. With the exception of contacting BNR Press about publishing the catalog, project evolution up to that point had remained purely accidental.
Once a few copies escaped into the wild, collectors started contributing information and images. There were so many contributions, in fact, that it became hard to keep up. I finally got out of the selling business because I found collecting and sharing information more fun. As a result of the voluntary cooperation and collaboration of more and more collectors, I asked, “Why not collect information and prices about every railroad certificate issued in North America?”
Yes, that goal was and remains utterly unrealistic. No one is ever going to achieve that goal; certainly not me. Upon reflection, it is not the goal that drives me, but the selfish joy of collaboration. I say “selfish” because both I and my correspondents do this every day of the week simply because it makes us feel good to help others.
Believe me, I am never going to claim this is any kind of grand pursuit, because it is not. This project is tiny and only matters to a few hundred people among the billions on the planet. Together, we have managed to record almost 30,500 different varieties and sub-varieties of certificates from one corner of a hobby that remains essentially unknown to almost all humans. It is greatly more important to view this effort not as an achievement but as an example of what we all can do if we merely cooperate.
Every time I step back from the database and take time to look around at the broader strokes of collecting, I am thoroughly marveled by the still greater achievements of those who have preceded us. In the area of collecting hobbies, I marvel at the achievements of Gene Hessler, Dave Bowers, John Herzog, Milton Friedberg, Hans Braun, Eric Neman and Mark Tomasko. And then there are dealers who have persevered for decades including George LaBarre, Scott Winslow, Bob Kerstein, Matthias Schmitt, Michael Weingarten and Erik and Mario Boone. There are hundreds more I could mention if given the space to gush. And let’s not forget Max Hensley and everyone who has helped make Scripophily what it is today. These people have all stood on the shoulders of people who came before and all have “raised the bar” even higher.
Beyond collecting are where the real giants have lived, the ones who have achieved things that I, as a mere cataloger, can imagine at only the most minimal level. Where did people like John D. Rockefeller, Leland Stanford, Cyrus Field, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and others by the tens of thousands get the guts to even conceive of the things they achieved?
Insightful men and women have asked those question for centuries, one being the giant intellect of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His entire 1841 essay considered the subject, but I don’t think many readers would call “Self-Reliance” an easy read. I think it is as thick as molasses. The essay is something that one must read over several days because every sentence requires multiple readings and pondering. Meaning no offense to Emerson, I equate reading his essay to trying to swim through a swamp with bricks tied to one’s feet.
The people I mentioned above all remind me of a phrase found a little less than half way through Emerson’s essay. While I’ve misquoted the sentence for years, Emerson actually wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
That single line has been with me for over half my life and I firmly believe that most, if not all achievements, great or trivial, are the shadows of single people who stumbled on ideas and somehow found ways to enjoy cooperation and collaboration from others.
Emerson’ phrase even applies to my cataloging of collectible certificates in that I merely stumbled into a crazy idea and never stopped. It has never and will never make me rich in any way other than the contributors and friends I’ve managed to work with. My project remains a thoroughly collaborative effort.
In my world view, buying and selling are equally collaborative in that neither can function without the other. As a seller, I found solid cooperation between dealers and I still perceive solid collaboration between advanced collectors and dealers.
On the other hand, I feel there has developed a very serious disconnect between inexperienced collectors and professional dealers. One well-known auction platform has set itself up as the go-to first choice for beginners. Yet is has effectively blocked most access to dealers through high, one-sided commission rates and hard-nosed prevention of off-platform marketing.
I am not saying professional dealers are not trying to reach those entry-level collectors and I am not saying all have failed. But I AM saying that I have noticed a severe drop-off in beginning collectors over the last fifteen years. It is not that entry-level collectors don’t exist, but they are not finding my site as often as they once did. Online auction sales in the low price band continue to be robust and I am routinely amazed by perpetual purchases of ultra common certificates and too many really stupid prices paid for unissued remainders.
This hobby needs new collectors. No question about it. After all, who are WE going to sell to when we decide to liquidate? Those of us who watch the market know there are many new collectors out there. The question is how we get them to understand that there is a whole world of discoveries waiting? I see the problem of “re-reaching” beginning collectors as one waiting to be cracked by a special person with a new idea. I wish I had that great idea, but I will be ecstatic when someone else makes the breakthrough. Anyone have any bright ideas?