Specialization in our hobby

This article appeared in
December, 2022

Scripophily is a member benefit of
the International Bond & Share Society.
Visit the IBSS website for info.

For some reason, specialization in collecting has been on my mind recently. In life’s greater pursuits, we use the word, “calling” and many people fail to discover theirs in a lifetime. Specialization in collecting is easier to find and specialties usually develop fairly quickly after a few adventures down different paths. Specialization is often so easy to find that many of us develop many specialties that we use like spice we can add to our other “callings.”

Of course, the majority of people who contribute to my project specialize in collecting stocks and bonds from North American railroads. But that doesn’t mean all. In fact, I suspect most collectors who have contributed images and information to my project actually have specialties that merely intersect with mine in some way. It is possible that a couple contributors may not even collect certificates.

It sounds somewhat contradictory, but if I were really honest, my main, compulsive specialty is actually not collecting railroad and coal company certificates at all. To be sure, I own many certificates. Behind those stocks and bonds are bookcases and file drawers of books, catalogs, and pricelists plus gigabytes of images. Certificates and non-certificates work together for the single-minded purpose of collecting, compiling and regurgitating information to collectors. That is MY specialty.

There is no way of knowing much about my correspondents’ specialties. The ones with the largest apparent collections are those who specialize in collecting certificates from single states. Collecting stocks and bonds from ancestral companies is also popular. It appears several collectors specialize in specific types of companies or specific types of certificates. Some of my contributors’ collections seem random, but that is probably because they send me only those items that happen to overlap with my specialty.

Upon reflection, the majority of my friends are also collectors, all with different specialties. Among them are collectors of musical instruments, fly rods, coins, stamps, paper money, vintage cars, minerals, and fine whiskies.

Not all collections are entirely physical. One person has a monumental collection of “bad music.” If you’ve ever heard a song that made you grimace, he has a recording. People contribute to him from coast to coast.

And we all know people who collect memories and satisfaction from restaurants, bars, events, and accomplishments. Everyone knows the type. “I’ve been to that restaurant.” “We’ve been to St. Andrews.” “I saw U2 at Red Rocks in 1983.” “I’ve climbed Denali.”

After being around collectibles for over sixty years, I believe without reservation that the tendency and desire to collect is universal. That does not means funds are always available, nor does it mean everyone realizes exactly what they are collecting. Still, the impetus is there and giving life to that urge gives enjoyment.

The scripophily hobby is a small one. Only a tiny slice of the population has any knowledge of scripophily and dramatically fewer actually collect. To someone outside the hobby, scripophily IS a specialty. They have absolutely no concept of how many different items are available to collect from their own regions, states, provinces, or countries, let alone from across the planet. It is that incredible magnitude that we need to navigate as collectors. Specialization is not a luxury in scripophily nor a way to separate oneself from the crowd. Specialization is an absolute necessity. In short, specialization is a way to increase enjoyment while preventing the hobby from getting out of control.

Let’s imagine a bank account without limit and a desire to collect one and only one certificate of every denomination and variety of every certificate from every company in North America. (Even narrowing the goal to North America is a form of specialization, but I digress.) There would need to be a method of recording every item purchased in order to minimize duplication. There would need to be methods of communication, bidding and buying from every auction venue and dealer available. Some process would need to be developed for disposal of inevitable duplicates. It would be a full-time effort, employing a few people and might even be fun—for a while. The effort definitely would be beyond the capabilities of a single person in an entire lifetime.

Then, let’s look at such acquisition from the other end: the dispersal of the collection. How does someone get rid of a collection like that? How many years would it take to sell? Theoretically, it could be donated, although few if any institutions would want such a huge collection. Even if one were found, how would someone rationalize the boundless arrogance of permanently removing countless thousands of unique certificates from ever being collected again?

That is a long and exaggerated way of showing that unbridled acquisition is not really collecting, but simply accumulation. The point is that the fun, the thoughtful pursuit, the personal relationships and sharing discovered through searching for specific items is where real fulfillment can be found. Specialization is where the beauty in this and other hobbies really resides.

Specialization does not need to make sense. It just needs to be fun.