The recession may have relegated some of America’s most revered financial institutions to the scrap heap of history, but it also upped the ante on vintage stock certificates, coffee mugs and ballpoint pens from corporate icons that hearken back to yesteryear.
Indeed, collectors of corporate memorabilia have been out in force since the financial crisis began, snapping up logo-laden chachkis from companies like John Deere, Budweiser, Ford, Coca-Cola and AT&T, says Dave Margulius, publisher of collectorsweekly.com, an online resource of antiques and vintage collecting.
The initial wave of enthusiasm for products bearing the Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearnsinsignia, he notes, has died down considerably as consumers grow weary of the economic downturn.
“I think people are actually fed up with those companies, but there’s a lot of interest in the iconic successful American brands,” says Margulius. “People like to collect brands that are nostalgic and remind them of the good times.”
(That said, a search on online auction site eBay still reveals a laundry list of items available to the highest bidder, including duffle bags, baseball hats and crystal clocks from the former brokerage firms, most of which are on the block for under $30.)
There is one exception, says Margulius: Enron.
Items mined from the largest corporate collapse in U.S. history (in 2004) have reached star status among the collecting elite.
The collectibles Web site tlknet.com has a page dedicated to Enron memorabilia, with Christmas ornaments, briefcases, sporting equipment and clothes bearing the company’s telltale crooked “E."
The Smithsonian Institution also procured an Enron coffee mug for the National Museum of American History in an effort to document the historic scandal, though it could not confirmreports that its collection also includes a copy of the former company’s ethics manual and a letter from its former chairman and chief executive Kenneth Lay.
The museum says the mug is not on display.
While most collectors of corporate memorabilia are in it for the thrill of the hunt, there are those who are thinking further ahead, hoping their small investment today might someday generate a return – at least for future generations.
Indeed, there is money to be made, if you know where to look.
High quality vintage ads for such iconic brands as Kodak, Coca-Cola, and Guinness stout, for example, can fetch four figures at trade shows and auctions depending on rarity and condition.
And a stock certificate for Standard Oil Co. signed by John D. Rockefeller would fetch $5,000 today, up from $1,000 20 years ago.
Those for Houdini Picture Corp. signed by its founder, magician Harry Houdini, have appreciated equally.
Fred Fuld, founder of antiquestocks.com, notes that while he does not recommend these historical documents be collected for purely investment purposes, “the rare certificates can appreciate quiet a bit.”
The most valuable piece in Fuld’s collection? A Disney stock certificate signed twice by Walt Disney—worth $75,000.
Airlines And Icons
Those anxious to own a piece of corporate history also have a soft spot for airlines.
“Most of us do it for the nostalgia, but there is definitely a market for airline memorabilia,” says Chris Sloan, whose collection of airline
memorabilia is among the world’s largest. “People will pay, especially if they have a personal connection -- because their father or mother maybe worked in the industry, for example.”
As such, he notes, it’s possible to turn a profit, but like most investments, you have to be willing to spend money to make money.
“If you want to do it right, you have to be willing to spend a lot,” says Sloan, who posts photos of his collection on his Web site airchive.com.
Large, six-foot, cut-away models of aircraft once displayed in travel agencies are among the rarest and most expensive items to find, says Sloan, costing upwards of $20,000 – “if you can even find one.” They’re also the items most likely to appreciate in value.
Sloan’s collection, which cost nearly $100,000 to build is now worth at least $150,000. It includes hundreds of route maps from the 1930s and 1940s, timetable cards, airline seats, china and silverware from all the major airline brands and large-scale models.
Like most collectors of corporate memorabilia, however, Sloan says he has no intention of cashing in.
“I’ve been collecting since I was 6 and I don’t want to sell anything,” he says. “The goal eventually is to open a museum.”