Corporations have been a part of the U.S. business landscape for more than a century, so it's quite possible that you could stumble across vintage stock certificates from as early as the mid- to late 19th century while clearing out your grandparents' attic. It takes a nominal amount of money or a bit of legwork to research old stock certificates to determine whether they have any value as securities or collectibles.
Inspect the Certificate
Inspect the information printed on the documents. A valid corporate security instrument should have the owner's name printed on it. The certificate may include other useful information, such as the name of the corporation, the state of incorporation and the name of the stock transfer agent who kept track of security transfers. If the certificate is stamped "specimen" instead of listing an owner, it's a sample document. If the certificate is stamped "canceled" or has holes punched through the signatures, it was canceled by the corporation, and the ownership interest that the certificate represented was transferred to another party. In these instances, the certificate has no value as a security, but might be valuable as a collectible.
Conduct a Quick Name Search
A corporation can have a perpetual existence, so the entity that issued the stock certificates in your possession could still be in business under the same name or a new name. Conduct a quick Internet search using a search engine to try and determine whether the corporation is still in existence. If the corporation has a website, look for the phone number for the investor relations or shareholder services office. Each stock certificate typically has a unique number stamped on it to help corporations keep track of them. Give the name printed on the face and the certificate number to the corporation's representative and ask for a current status.
Use Publicly-Available Resources
Don't give up if you can't find a record of the corporation with a simple Internet search. A wealth of free resources exists to help you determine the status of the certificates in your possession. Contact the business registration office in the state where the company was incorporated. States keep a database of business registrations, so you can find out from this office whether the corporation is still in existence. Follow up with research using Internet-based stock market quote services, such as Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database and reference materials at public libraries, such as the Directory of Obsolete Securities.
Other Avenues of Assistance
If you don't feel like doing the research yourself, you can hire a stock research firm to delve into the history of the certificates for a fee. If the stock transfer agent listed on the certificate is still in business, a quick call will typically answer your questions. Finally, if you have a stock brokerage account, ask your broker to research the status of the vintage certificates on your behalf.
Terry Masters has been writing for law firms, corporations and nonprofit organizations since 1995. Her online articles specialize in legal, business and finance topics. She holds a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Science in business administration with a minor in finance.