NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Pierre Bonneau gets a lot of phone calls like this one: An elderly woman who has come across a pile of forgotten stock certificates while sorting through her files. The certificates are from 1959 and bear the name General Telephone.
Bonneau's business, founded by his parents in Montreal in 1969 and called Stock Search International, exists to answer the question: Is there any underlying value to the equity ownership once guaranteed by these now-moldering pieces of paper?
For a fee, Bonneau, who now runs Stock Search out of his house on Martha's Vineyard, will attempt to find out. The core of the job is investigative legwork -- kicking around in libraries and the offices of secretaries of state -- and it's here that Bonneau discovered that General Telephone & Electronics was the result of a merger between General Telephone and Sylvania Electric in 1959, that the company changed its name to GTE in 1982, that several stock splits had increased the holdings by a factor of 10, and that the share owner of General Telephone & Electronics in 1959 was a share owner of Verizon (VZ) in 2011.
"This for us shows the potential of old shares," Bonneau says in his Quebecois accent. "People will often say: it's too old, there's no value. It's like assuming all old wine is bad and has gone to vinegar."Stock Search used to have more competition, but its one-time rivals are now more involved in old stock and bond certificates as collectibles along the lines of numismatics or philately. There's even a term for securities-as-collectibles -- scripophily. ( Scripophily.net, run by Bob Kerstein, is one of these dealers.) The business, in other words, has shifted. Still, Bonneau says he receives between 15 and 20 such phone calls a week, on average, from all over the world. "Our specialty is to help people who don't know where to go. We are the last resort." There's a common fantasy at the bottom of a business like Bonneau's, a certain kind of simplistic stock-market fable, akin to the logic of Antiques Roadshow, except with a Wall Street big-money twist: Being gifted a safety-deposit box full of old E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. (DD) (founded 1802) stock certificates that some long-lost ancestor bought at the turn of the century and that have now split into securities worth millions. The fantasy has its tragic inverse as well: The grandfather, say, who unloaded his portfolio of IBM (IBM - Get Report) in a panic in November 1929. After all, the history of American business (from one point of view, at least) is an unbroken chain of innovation, explosive growth and epic wealth creation. That history gives rise to a form of common fantasy: How much would that one share of Big Blue, acquired when the company debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in 1915, be worth today? How rich would we have been made? On the occasion of the centennial of the founding of International Business Machines Corporation, TheStreet has set out to create a list of the publicly traded companies, more than a century old, that have done just this: created wealth. We wanted to isolate, in as simple a way possible, those venerable institutions that have survived more than 100 years and that have still performed the best for investors in relatively recent times: over the last decade and the last 20 years. Dozens of major U.S. corporations meet the basic requirement of tracing their roots earlier than 1911. But our objective was to focus on those businesses that remain the most relevant -- and by relevant we mean returning value to those who own pieces of them. What better way to measure such a standard than sheer share-price appreciation? That's why we made sure to judge performance against two rudimentary but all-important figures: appreciation of the broader equities markets and the rate of inflation. Since 1990, the S&P 500 has gained 280%. Since 1990, inflation has come in at about 65%. If a stock didn't beat those two ( Dow Chemical (DOW) and Ford (F - Get Report), for example), it was left off our list. And that's why you won't find many venerable banking institutions here -- JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Citigroup (C), for example -- both of which can claim origins in the 19th and even 18th centuries, but whose equity values saw great harm in the most recent financial crisis. (IBM, by they way, with a dividend and split-adjusted increase of about 860% since 1990, just missed the cut.) To trim the list even further, we didn't just look at recent stock performance. We culled from the pool of candidates those companies that have been altered through merger or acquisition, or that have gone into and out of bankruptcy. No General Motors (GM) here (founded 1908, bankrupt 2009), no Monsanto (MON) (founded 1901, merged into Pharmacia in 2002, spat out again two years later), no Anheuser-Busch (founded 1875, taken by the Belgians, 2008). Without further ado, our list of the oldies but goodies: