DALLAS--Robert Noblitt thinks he may have the ultimate zero coupon bond.

While rummaging through a family chest recently in their Oklahoma home, Mr. Noblitt's grandparents found a $10 bond believed to have been issued by the Republic of Texas on Nov. 1, 1838, which bears the signature of its president, Sam Houston.

After discovering the note carries a 10% interest rate that compounds until the obligation is redeemed, Mr. Noblitt set his calculator to work. So far, the way he has it figured, somebody may owe his family as much as $6 million.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," said Mr. Noblitt, a student majoring in history and education at Central State University in Edmond, Okla.

One of his first calls was to Danny Burger, executive director of the Municipal Advisory Council of Texas, the state's bond industry group.

"That's some zero coupon bond," laughed Mr. Burger about the find. But he said such calls are not uncommon, adding, "It happens all the time. Probably not a month goes by when we don't get a call from somebody who has found some old bonds."

Mr. Burger referred the young caller to the Texas treasury, which passed on deciding if the bond is valid after finding that it would be an obligation of the U.S. Treasury -- not the state.

"The United States took on all debts of the Republic of Texas when it became part of the [nation]," Texas Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison said yesterday.

Under the treaty that brought Texas into the union, the federal government assumed the debt the state took on in its early years. In fact, the 1838 debt was believed to have been issued at a time when the Texas treasury was empty.

The Noblitts are not sure how -- 153 years later -- their family, which has Texas roots, came to own the bond. But since Delbert and Pauline Noblitt made the discovery in her great-grandmother's chest, it has been their grandson's obsession.

"They weren't even going to do anything about this," said Robert Noblitt, who says the bond is being kept in a safe-deposit box at the Bank of Vici in the state's panhandle. "So, I've ketp after it."

So far, Mr. Noblitt has not filed a claim with anybody, though he is pressing to find out if his bond is valid.

Experts say there may be little reason to be upbeat. Historically, such claims for payment on outdated obligations have yielded plenty of frustration -- but no money.

"Usually, the states or federal government find some way of getting out of these things," said Diana Herzog, president of R.M. Smythe & Co. in New York and a bond historian. "Often there is some fine print that the person has overlooked."

That fine print worked against William T. Kirk Jr. in 1943, when he tried to collect on $2,490 for 88 bond interest coupons issued by Allegheny County, Pa., in 1858, when the Pittsburgh & Stubenville Railroad was built.

Like the Noblitt case, Mr. Kirk found the bonds in a family chest, but a judge ruled they were too old to be valid.

The tale of another discovered bond is even more colorful.

In 1926, a California man tried to claim payment on a $1,000 Georgia bond dated 1854, but then-state Treasurer William J. Speer refused to pay the debt.

The reason? He said the bond was stolen property taken as loot by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's troops during their famous march through Georgia in the Civil War.

Even if Mr. Noblitt's bond is not valid, he can expect to recoup some money because of the historical value of the bond. Once collector already has offered him $30 for it.

"I'm on his side, and I wish him well because I'm sure it's going to be a tought battle to establish a valid claim," Mr. Burger said. He noted that others who have failed to get antique bonds to pay off have found another use for them: "They make good wallpaper."

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