New Delhi: Every other Sunday, Pranav Gandhi wakes up and heads for Ahmedabad’s weekly waste market with one purpose: to spend three hours rummaging through the towering hauls of waste-paper merchants.
Methodically, he digs past torn textbooks, old newspapers, scraps of cardboard and discarded shopping lists to search for that one rare gem: an old share or bond certificate, in even reasonably good condition, to add to his collection.
Gandhi is a scripophilist, which is to say he collects antique stocks and bonds. His collection now totals more than 1,000 cancelled share and bond certificates, safely tucked into plastic sleeves and stored in metal filing cabinets.
Gandhi spends hours rummaging through the towering hauls of waste-paper merchants in search of old share or bond certificates to add to his collection. (Amit Dave / Mint)
“Anybody who understands the stock market or who has a natural love of the equity culture could be a scripophilist at heart,” says Gandhi. “I was also attracted by the creative vignettes and illustrations, the ornate designs, and the antique look of these old certificates. You can’t find that in today’s certificates at all.”
The value of an old scrip depends upon its condition, but also upon its aesthetics. A carefully inked, illustrated certificate of a historic company, signed by a famous person, is a coveted rarity. In 2004, at a Scripophily Stock and Bond Show in the US, a $1,000 Third Liberty Loan Gold Bond from 1928 sold for a record price of $13,800.
In fact, this hobby could be the only benefit of still holding Enron stock. One scripophily website is currently selling a 1988 Enron bond, with the doomed Kenneth Lay’s signature as chairman, for $300.
In India, though the pastime doesn’t have as strong a following, enthusiasts exist nonetheless.
“The piece of paper I love the most is the certificate of The Bank of Hindustan, issued in 1942, because of its typical antique design,” says Gandhi. “It is just so visually rich, and it is perhaps the only certificate that has a map of undivided India printed on it.”
Balkrishna Tonde, a scripophilist in Mumbai, singles out two favourites from his collection: a certificate signed by Ghanshyam Das Birla half a century ago, and a Bank of Bengal scrip that goes back a hundred years.
In 1989, when he was 20 years old, Gandhi borrowed money from his parents to buy his first shares—five Partly Convertible Debentures issued publicly by Tisco. “With those shares, it was not just the certificates I possessed. I was also the owner of the underlying securities,” he says. “After holding them for more than eight years, I had to surrender them when I sold my shares. But I still have that original certificate of allotment.”
Those Tisco shares inaugurated a collection that includes, among others, many certificates from the textile mills of Ahmedabad’s golden era of industry. “In the last five years, a number of those mill buildings were demolished, and their records were scrapped,” says Gandhi. “The mills also invested in other non-textile companies or in bonds. So I could find all those certificates as well.”
Gandhi seems to have resigned himself, though, to the singularity of his pastime. “In the last two decades, I have interacted with thousands of stock market enthusiasts,” he says. “Surprisingly I haven’t found a single person who collects certificates as a hobby, and it’s difficult to even estimate the number of scripophilists in India.”
Shailendra Gohiya, another scripophilist in Mumbai, is brave enough to put a number to the game. “There must be perhaps 50 collectors across India,” he says. His hobby is now 15 years old, and he visits dealers in old stamps and coins, in the hope that some certificates have washed up with them. Gandhi’s main ally in his quest is eBay India.
“They identified the potential of scripophily, and buying and selling certificates became just a matter of a few clicks,” he says.
The eBay India website lists share certificates either in its numismatics or philately subcategories, although Deepa Thomas, senior manager of pop culture at eBay, says scripophily will soon get a page to itself. “Honestly, when we first encountered this on our website, we had no idea what it was,” says Thomas. “I had to look ‘scripophily’ up on Wikipedia.”
An online platform such as eBay, Gandhi says, is ideal for collectors like him, with no other method of finding similar owners of eclectic obsessions. The number of scripophilists on eBay has risen enough in the recent past to warrant strategic plans for even a dedicated banner somewhere on the website.
But in a quirk of fate, just as the hobby begins to take root in India, technology may have already spelt out its early demise.
“The rate at which shares are getting dematerialized and holdings transformed into electronic form, the world of physical stock certificates will come to an end very soon,” says Gandhi. “Already, the practice of buying and selling shares through the delivery of an actual piece of paper has diminished. For the next generation, even to see an actual stock or bond certificate could be a rare and memorable phenomenon.”
Indian scripophilists, therefore, don’t enjoy one of the foremost prerogatives of the collector—to buy a newly issued collectible and hold on to it until it becomes rare or valuable. Instead, they will compete among themselves for an already extant pool of stock and bond certificates. And Gandhi, for his part, will continue to wade through wastepaper every other Sunday.