Last laugh: Collectors gobble scandal-corp swag

Shareholders who bemoan the failures of Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia have one last option for their seemingly worthless shares: collectors.

All those folks who got laid off from Value America thinking, "I worked for a high flyer, and all I got was this lousy polo shirt," may find out that polo shirt is worth something.

In the vacuum of a Fortune 500 freefall, a collectors' market for corporate memorabilia has sprung up. Eighty different Enron items are currently for sale on Ebay, including the Enron pencil sharpener, Enron Titleist golf balls, and the especially collectible Enron paper shredder and Enron Code of Ethics.

Likewise, scripophily the collection of stock and bond certificates is not new, but interest has sparked in recent days, says local resident Pat McKeithan, a collector since the 1970s.

"I work at the Association for Investment Management Research in the financial services industry," he says. "I have a real interest in financial chicanery."

McKeithan's collection includes stock certificates from WorldCom and Enron, and he plans to frame them to make "a wall of shame" for his office at AIMR, where he's general counsel.

"It's a historic time-­ a watershed– for the country and the financial world because of these frauds," says McKeithan.

Another local scripophilist is Bob Bruner, head of the Batten Institute at Darden. He collects the certificates of major collapses, whether corporate or government.

For example, one of his favorites is a cotton bond issued by the Confederate States of America late in the Civil War. "It was a junk bond to start with," says Bruner. What makes it rare is that it was payable in either Confederate dollars or in cotton. "Commodity bonds are issued in times of extreme conditions, and are not a sustainable strategy," he adds.

Bruner became "captivated" when he first saw framed scrip hanging on a friend's wall, and he spent the better part of an afternoon looking through a dealer's offerings. To keep from getting too carried away, though, he makes it a policy to not collect more than he can hang on a wall.

"I love history," Bruner says, and there's another benefit for him as a finance professor. "There's a teachable point behind these collapses. They serve as cautionary tales."

He also admires the engraver's art found on stocks, bonds, and currency, which often depict a scene or even a vignette. For instance, a stock certificate of a 19th­century railroad might have a locomotive steaming over a bridge.

It was a Chinese railroad bond that caught Pat McKeithan's eye. "I happened to see this pretty bond with lots of nice engraving that was a work of art," he says.

Even better, he paid $10 for it in the '70s. Now, thanks to a diplomatic flap over the bond– it was issued by the Chinese Nationalist government (investors sued and tried to impound a communist plane)– he estimates it's worth around $10,000.

Bruner's collection includes the obligatory Enron certificate. The next addition on his list is Tyco International. "I've written about the dangers of following the strategy that company followed," he says.

On McKeithan's wish list: an Adelphia certificate. "That would be a catch," he says.

And indeed, Bob Kerstein at Scripophily.com confirms that Adelphia certificates with a John Rigas signature are the hardest to come by these days because they're no longer traded.

Scripophily.com, based in Falls Church, has put together a "Modern Scandal Package" that's one of its top sellers. The $249.95 package of eight certificates includes Enron and WorldCom, of course, and also Qwest, Kmart, and Dynegy.

One of Kerstein's personal favorites is eToys. "It's unique and an elaborate certificate, a reminder that you don't spend $2 to $4 on printing a stock certificate," he says. "It tells me they were putting their money in the wrong place."

Kerstein mentions another very expensive, ornate certificate: Martha Stewart.

So why do people collect the stock certificates of failed companies?

"It says it all," offers Kerstein. "It's how a company raises money, and it's the last piece of paper when it fails."

For McKeithan, the certificates are sort of a morality play, "a reminder of human greed."

Sometimes there's a nostalgia factor at work for people who collect marketing novelties with, say, a Piedmont Airlines or Digital Equipment Corporation logo, companies that disappeared in the merger frenzy of the '80s and '90s.

Local collector Pat Powell doesn't specialize in scrip, but he does have a few choice certificates from Charlottesville businesses no longer with us.

The Charlottesville Aero and Motor Company from 1920 had a capital stock of $20,000. The Charlottesville City and Suburban Railway Company from 1902 provides a rare glimpse of earlier transportation alternatives. It pictures a trolley, and its $80,000 capital stock was "considerable," says Powell.

And the Charlottesville and University of Virginia Electric Light and Gas Company certificate was never issued, says Powell, who guesses it's from the 1920s.

Nostalgia wasn't exactly a factor in Bill Ramsey's collection of giveaways. It was more like an obsession with the short-lived Working Weekly and its founder, Gail Bentley, that fueled his corporate swag (or schwag, as one local media company calls it) collection.

An employment newspaper, Working Weekly ran from 1999-2000. At the time, Ramsey was art director for C-Ville Weekly, and he quickly became enthralled with Bentley's breathy columns detailing her exploits as a CEO, which in turn inspired Ramsey's own column, "Gail Force."

His writing inspired gifts from adoring fans. He soon became the smiling recipient of Working Weekly t-shirts, a letter opener, balloons, Silly Putty and inspirational building blocks. An embroidered yellow Working Weekly jacket became his most prized possession.

"I've never seen someone with such naïve confidence," says Ramsey about The Gail, as Bentley was known about town at the time. "And then there was her total incredulousness when things fell apart." The company declared bankruptcy within months of television appearances and a $10,000 website launch party.

"I admired her attitude in spending other people's money," says Ramsey.

Collecting Working Weekly memorabilia is definitely a niche interest that's not necessarily shared even by those who worked there. "The [former employee] who gave me the jacket said she didn't want anything to do with it," says Ramsey.

And that may be the case for others who've been victimized by corporate malfeasance or ineptitude, like former employees of Value America and Comdial. Kerstein compares it to a car wreck.

"Do you want a picture of your crashed car on the wall right now?" he asks.

The quintessential car wreck, Value America declared bankruptcy two years ago. Former employee Rusty Speidel says his two Value America polo shirts stay in the closet. "I have trouble wearing that stuff," he says.

At the Antiquer's Mall on 29 North, an employee says no one there is selling swag from local failures such as still-in-business Comdial, but they do have some phone message pads from long-gone Value America. "We found a couple in the parking lot, and we're using them," she says.

Since The Gail's heyday, Ramsey says, his obsession has dissipated, and he's gotten rid of most of his swag collection, except for his treasured yellow jacket.

He's not interested in pursuing the detritus of other failed corporations, with maybe one exception: the big, "crooked E" in front of Enron. "I'd probably stick it on my front lawn," he says. And indeed, one of the crooked E's from an auxiliary Enron building in Houston sold at an auction last week for $44,000.

Why are collectors swarming over the Enron E or, for that matter, Working Weekly?

"I think there's a certain attachment people have to items like that," Ramsey says. "The common man gets a kick out of owning a piece of a failed company. He gets the last laugh."

 

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