Before the internet and online brokerages, holding a physical stock certificate was a necessity. It was the only way buyers of shares could prove their ownership. Today, the electronic trail has replaced the certificate.

Over time, one American company after another has stopped issuing stock certificates. This occasionally hits the news, as in 2013 when The Walt Disney Co. retired its frame-ready certificates featuring its colorful cartoon characters.

Most of the world's stock exchanges are undergoing the same process of phasing out paper certificates.

If You Insist

Companies will issue a certificate if you request one, but the process can be expensive and time-consuming. You can contact the company directly, in hopes of finding someone who understands your request and knows how to accomplish it. You also can request one from a broker, who is legally entitled to charge up to $500 for producing a piece of paper certifying ownership of a number of shares.

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Old Stock Certificates: Lost Treasure?

If You Have 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 at the certificate for the identification, or CUSIP, number, and the state in which the company was incorporated. Contact the office of the secretary of state in that state to find out if the company is still doing business there. If it is, you can call the company to find out who its transfer agent is.

In order to cash in the stock, you need to complete the transfer form on the back of the certificate and have it notarized. You'll 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.

Wall Art

In their heyday, stock certificates were often appealing examples of the printer's art. Companies competed to create the most beautiful, or at least most impressive, certificates.

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.

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.