April 30, 2009

11x17 scanners

I receive numerous requests asking me to recommend scanners capable of imaging stocks and bonds in one pass. You can always scan certificates in two or three passes and then stitch images together. However, if you go that direction, your images will look pretty scuzzy unless you invest in good (by that I mean Photoshop) image software. For the average non-techie collector, I strongly suggest it is easier and dramatically more time effective to try buy a large scanner.

Yes, there is the price issue. While letter-size scanners are almost disposable items, 11 x 17 scanners can be very pricey.

To be useful for collectors, scanners need to be

  • flatbed (flat glass surface)
  • capable of scanning 11 x 17 (officialy designated "A3" size)
  • affordable
  • have acceptable software
Stay away - far away - from multi-function scanners or scanners with document feeders. Unless you like living dangerously, never let machinery grab your certificates.

Here are the large flatbed scanners currently available.

  1. 1. Epson Expression 10000XL. This is a serious, serious workhorse. and the one I use. It has proven extremely reliable. This scanner comes with good scanning software.

  2. 2. Epson GT-20000. I don't know anything about this machine, but if it's anything like the 10000XL, it ought to be great. Let me know if you're familiar with this scanner.

  3. Mustek ScanExpress A3 USB 1200 Pro. One of my correspondents bought one just to scan certificates. His images look good and he says he's very pleased with his purchase. These are extremely affordable machines, so probably perfect for the hobbyist.

  4. UMAX Powerlook 2100XL. I cannot speak to this device, but we used an ancient UMAX for years. Dollar for dollar, it was a terrific investment.

  5. Avision FB6080E. Unlike any of the other scanners, this one has glass almost to the edge of the scanner body. This allows you to scan book pages very easily.

  6. Plustek Optibook A300. Another large format flatbed scanner primarily designed to make it easy to scan large books face down without trashing the binding. The list price on this scanner is higher than the other scanners in this list.
Several other companies (Ricoh, Xerox, Bell & Howell) offer large format "flatbed" scanners heavily adorned with document feeders. They are expensive machines intended for large businesses, so not considered here as appropriate for collectors.

It appears that most large companies like HP, Canon, Microtek, Kodak and Fujitsu have abandoned the 11 x 17 size flatbed scanner market for us ordinary consumers. If a big fan of those companies, you can still buy older and discontinued models online. However, be warned that you never know how much useful life is left in the bulbs. Repairs are often possible, of course, but frequently more expensive than replacement.

April 25, 2009

Arguing against jargon

I think we should all applaud our hobby for using very, very little jargon. I think this is especially amazing when you consider that every collectible certificate came from the world of finance, a profession inundated with arcane and obscure terminology.

I just did a search in the current issue of Scripophily, the quarterly publication of the International Bond and Share Society. I saw no jargon whatsoever.

Now, that is not to say that every single word would be immediately understandable to a novice. Words like "specimen", "proof", "vignette", "preferred", and even "scripophily" (the official name of the hobby) can be confusing. However, I classify those words as necessary terminology and fully recognize that the boundary between terminology and jargon can be fuzzy.

Most collectible bonds are "first mortgage coupon bonds". A novice may not know what a first mortgage coupon bond is, but the term cannot really be simplified. Besides, the words appear on bonds.

However, if a description were shortened to "1885 7% 1st", we would be solidly in the realm of jargon. Even experienced collectors might not know the description referred to a 7% first mortgage bond issued in 1885.

To me, the test is often simple. If a simple word can be substituted for a confusing one, then the confusing word is probably jargon.

Take "recto" and "verso", for instance.

These are Latin words for "right" and "back." With the exception of a handful of people in the teaching and clerical professions, no one really understands, let alone speaks, Latin. "Front" and "back" don't sound terribly professional, but their meanings are crystal clear. "Recto" and "verso" are therefore jargon words. (In truth, "recto" refers to the right hand page in a book meant to be read first. Its use in describing certificates is, in my opinion, a little misguided to begin with.)

In some cases, jargon is used to make writers or speakers sound professional and educated. It is a time-worn rule that if you spout off a little Latin, you sound like a pro.

And then, there are terms that serve definite purposes in one profession or hobby and somehow get stolen and cludged onto another. They are not really jargon so much as "Frankenstein words."

One of those ugly monsters is the term "mint condition". Here was a perfectly good term used in the coin hobby in years past. Coins are minted, so the term "mint condition" had its place. The term was abandoned when collectors accepted the fact that coins came from mints in wide ranges of conditions. Today, coin collectors refer to those conditions as various "mint states."

In a strange paradoxical twist of fate, the abandoned term "mint condition" lives on as a Frankenstein term in various collectible paper hobbies, including stock and bond collecting. How is it that "mint condition" can be used to describe pieces of paper that may never have been within a thousand miles of a mint? Was there ever a collector of paper who thought paper was minted?

I maintain a large glossary of terms related to the hobby of collecting stocks and bonds. Please contact me if you ever encounter jargon or Frankenstein words that need clarification.

April 21, 2009

Prices remain schizophrenic

I admit it.

I am confused about the direction of prices for collectible stocks and bonds. Some prices are up. Many are down. Prices for some items should be down, but are actually up. And vice versa. As I said a few months ago, prices are wacky.

Mario Boone's auction a month ago in Antwerp (the next listing down) was very curious. Overall, Mario sold about 60% of the lots offered. That percentage was abnormally high for a European sale. Having said that, lots that featured North American railroads only sold half as well as the rest of the sale. In part, I think those low sales percentages reflected overly high owners' reserve amounts rather than market disinterest.

At the other end of the market, the number of certificates being sold on eBay is down substantially. Regardless of sellers' proclamations that their certificates are "rare", most certificates being sold on eBay right now are rather ordinary. And that is where it gets really interesting.

I am seeing that scarcer certificates are, by and large, establishing new lows. At the same time, prices for more common certificates – the certificates you see week in, week out – are moving up.

What the heck is going on ?!? Apparent trends just don't seem to be making a lot of sense.

A few years ago, MK&T certificates with Jay Gould's autograph routinely sold for $350-$400. Lately, some have broken the $175 barrier and are now challenging the $150 level. Certificates with rather common imprinted revenues have been selling for 50% to 100% more than they used to. Prices for very common certificates are up. Prices for medium common to medium scarce certificates are down.

Yes, we can certainly attribute some of this odd price behavior to the global downturn and a general feeling of caution, if not outright fear. It has always been the rule that when people need to liquidate, they sell for any price they can get.

However, if we go back to Mario Boone's sale, we can see that some sellers are apparently refusing to capitulate. Fortunately for those sellers, some collectors are behaving as if they believe this is a pefect time to buy. Boone's sale proves to me that some collectors are continuing to buy and are continuing to pay strong prices.

I'm back to where I began. I can't say whether prices are going to drop further, head higher, or stay schizophrenic. I am baffled.