If you owned stock before the internet and online brokerages took over the financial world, there's a very good chance that you had a stock certificate. This certificate was a physical piece of paper issued by companies to shareholders—the only way you could prove ownership of the stock held in your name. But these certificates have now become a thing of the past. That's because the electronic trail has now replaced the certificate, and the need to hold one.

Over time, one American company after another stopped issuing stock certificates. Although it may not seem very newsworthy, it occasionally hit the news, as it did in 2013 when Walt Disney retired its frame-ready certificates featuring its colorful cartoon characters. And most of the world's stock exchanges are undergoing the same process of phasing out paper certificates. If you're among those who has to have physical proof of ownership, read on to find out how you can your hands on a stock certificate.

Key Takeaways

  • The internet and online brokerages have made physical stock certificates a thing of the past.
  • Brokerage firms keep an account in your name with the number of shares held by you.
  • You can still request a stock certificate through the company or a broker.
  • Old certificates may be sold as collectables—some being worth a few dollars, while other, more artistic ones fetching hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Want a Stock Certificate?

Stock certificates were once the only way you could prove that you owned shares in a company. But ownership is much easier to prove now thanks to the internet. If you bought shares through a broker, the firm will have an account with your name and number of shares. Although you don't need one now, you can still get ask for a certificate. Companies will issue one if you make a request, but the process can be both expensive and time-consuming.

There are several ways you can get your certificate. The first, and most obvious way, is to go directly through the company and ask to have a physical certificate mailed directly to you. But the easiest way to get one is to ask your broker. Be aware, though, that this request usually comes with a fee. Some brokers are able to charge up to $500 for producing a piece of paper certifying ownership of a number of shares.

If you still want a certificate, contact the company directly or go through your broker.

Some key details on the certificate include your name, the company name, the number of shares you own, as well as the CUSIP number. This is a unique identifier used for all stocks and bonds in the United States. Your certificate will also be signed by the person who issued it.

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Old Stock Certificates: Lost Treasure?

What to Do With Old Certificates

If you have an old certificate, it is possible, though highly unlikely, that it has some value beyond wall art. Check to see if the company is still in business. If it is, look for the state in which the company was incorporated along with the CUSIP on the certificate. Contact the office of the secretary of state in that state to find out if the company still does business there. If it is, you can call the company to find out the information you need to contact its transfer agent.

In order to cash in the stock, you need to complete the transfer form on the back of the certificate and have it notarized. Once complete, send that to the transfer agent, who will register the stock to you as owner. At that point, you can sell the stock through the transfer agent or a stockbroker.

Decorate Your Wall

Many documents were often plain, simple certificates. But that wasn't always the case. In their heyday, stock certificates were often appealing examples of a printer's art, and it often depended on the issuing company.

Companies competed to create the most beautiful, or at least most impressive, certificates. As noted above, Disney certificates often contained drawings of the company's most notable characters. Some of these are now collectibles. Most are worth only a few dollars, based on eBay listings, but some very rare and unusual examples have considerable value. For example, a certificate from American Aerial Navigation Company from 1903 is priced at $1,500.

End of an Era

The demise of the stock certificate ends a tradition that extends back at least 400 years. One of the oldest known examples of a stock certificate, found in Holland, was issued in 1606. It was around that time that the Dutch East Indies Company became the first company to issue stock certificates. The certificate is housed at the Westfries Museum in the Netherlands.