On the first day that Dutch history student Ruben Schalk dug into the West Frisian archives in Hoorn, a city about 28 miles north of Amsterdam, he struck gold. By sheer accident he had stumbled upon what appears to be the world’s oldest share.
“I didn’t know right away that it was a share,” Schalk, 25, said in a telephone interview today. “I knew it was a special document. It was a printed form and printing was expensive back then, while the details were added by hand.”
Schalk, doing research for his master’s thesis at the University of Utrecht, in February found the receipt for a founder share in the Dutch East India Company, dated Sept. 9, 1606. Auctioneers say the share, the fourth of its kind to emerge, may be worth as much as 600,000 euros ($764,000).
“This is the Rembrandt of shares,” said Reinhild Tschoepe of the namesake auction house in Germany by telephone. A share in the Dutch East India Company is “an absolute masterpiece in scripophily,” the collecting of old securities certificates, according to Mario Boone, director of auction house Booneshares in Belgium. Boone estimates the paper found in Hoorn to be worth as much as 600,000 euros.
Schalk’s discovery is almost three weeks older than a similar security owned by a group of private German investors. Issued by the Amsterdam chamber of the East India Company on Sept. 27, 1606, it once belonged to the regional archives of the Dutch capital, deputy archivist Ellen Fleurbaay said in a telephone interview.
“It disappeared from the city’s archives in the nineties,” Fleurbaay said. “We want it back.”
The private German investors once said that they were prepared to talk about a sale starting at 5 million euros, said Tschoepe, who brokered the initial purchase of the share for the investors. “For us, that’s an amount we won’t even talk about,” said Fleurbaay.
The two other shares in the East India Company from the year 1606 are in the library of the University of Leiden and owned by NYSE Euronext in Amsterdam, respectively. All of them derived from the first share sale that ever took place, said Cees Vermaas, chairman of NYSE Euronext Amsterdam, in an e- mail today.
Cradle of Trading
“This confirms the position of Amsterdam as the cradle of global equity trading,” said Vermaas. “We don’t need to possess it, as we have our own one that comes from the same emission. We do want to bring these pieces together on our annual visitor’s day in March.”
The Dutch East India Company, which sent ships from the Low Countries to the East Indies, was founded in 1602. To raise capital, the owners borrowed money from anyone willing to participate and initially paid dividends partly in spices and pepper grains. The East India Company dominated global trading for almost two centuries and is considered to be the first corporation in history that laid the foundations for the Amsterdam exchange, reputedly the oldest in the world.
The share certificate Schalk found may be worth between 250,000 euros and 500,000 euros, according to Matthias Schmitt, CEO of German auction house HWPH Historisches Wertpapierhaus AG. That would be almost four times as much as the current record auction sale of an 1871 founder share in Standard Oil, signed by John D. Rockefeller.
It’s rumored that there’s a fifth one, owned by a family in Amsterdam and the basis for the “Ocean’s Twelve” movie (2004) with George Clooney. But chances are slim that one of the four known East India Company founder shares will ever be publicly sold, the auctioneers said.
The share “belongs to the Enkhuizen municipality and will stay in the possession of the Enkhuizen municipality,” said spokeswoman Marloes Hoorn. The archives of the Dutch town of Enkhuizen, where the share was found, are part of the West Frisian regional archives in Hoorn, she said. “They won’t and legally can’t sell it.”
That doesn’t bother Schalk. He’ll receive his master’s degree in history next month. “I won’t get rich from this at all,” he said. “But all the free publicity is, of course, nice for my future career as a historian.”