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The Lure of Collecting Automobile License Plates

by Andy Bernstein (10/01/08).

Once upon a time, old license plates were just old license plates. Once having outlived their usefulness, they were discarded, tacked to an old barn door or nailed to the garage walls and quickly forgotten. Anyone that collected them was viewed as somewhat of an oddball, perhaps engaging in some type of suspicious activity.

This scenario is certainly not the case today. No other hobby related to the automobile has become more popular in the past 10 years or so than the collecting, studying, researching, trading, buying, selling and the quest for valuable automobile tags, with shiny new plates sought after as avidly as the rusty older ones.

With the advent of the silk-screening process in license-plate manufacturing, thousands of colorful elaborate designs now adorn the bumpers of automobiles in the United States, Canada, Mexico and many other foreign countries. These newer attractive designs are being used to generate what has become a plethora of optional issues. Optional-issued license plates are plates issued for an additional fee, whereby motorists can opt to support all kinds of environmental organizations, a particular university or college, or simply show an affiliation to a particular group. Specialty or optional license plates have proliferated at an unprecedented rate, and it is this phenomenon that has further fueled the interest in license-plate collecting.

Valuation of license plates

Like many collectibles and antiques, the value of a license plate depends greatly on supply and demand. Key factors in determining value include age, the number of plates issued in that particular year and jurisdiction, condition, whether plates for the year in question were issued in pairs or singles, the type of material from which it was manufactured and the desirability of colors, slogans and/or number combinations.

While mass production of state-issued license plates began in Massachusetts in 1903 (see photo), by the late teens, all states had adopted some style of standardized license plate. It is from this period that today’s most sought-after plates originated. The true gems of this period are the porcelain or enamel license plates. These are often quite colorful, durable, attractive to display and very scarce. By the mid-teens, most of the porcelain-style issues had been replaced with cheaper, painted metal plates. Prices of even common porcelain license plates like those of Pennsylvania have definitely escalated, but many can still be purchased in nice condition for $75 or less. (See photo.) On the other end of the spectrum, we find that the scarce and more elusive porcelain license plates can easily fall into the $5,000-$10,000 range. (See photo.)

It is worth noting that as in any hobby or collecting realm, reproductions have also surfaced, but this on a much smaller scale. Often these can readily be identified by a “new” appearance and lack of a maker’s seal on the reverse of the plate.

License-plate collecting approaches

Collecting license plates is one of the most challenging hobbies around. With so many thousands of categories to choose from, it is important to focus on collecting goals, as well as to a set budget. Probably one of the most common projects a collector embarks on is that of completing a “one-per-state” display, usually composed of passenger license plates of recent vintage. One can easily complete this goal with a budget of $150-$350 depending on the type of plates sought. The toughest plate to complete a U.S. set? The elusive Washington, D.C., license plate! This is due to the fact that few of these are issued and that plates in the District of Columbia are permanent.

While the “one-per-state” project is going on, the average collector usually begins his own state “run.” A “state run” consists of one passenger-car plate for each year of issue since the first plates came into use in that particular state. If your state began motor-vehicle registration in 1910, you would seek a plate for each year with the eventual goal of an almost 100-year span!

A popular third goal for many collectors is a “birthyear set” with one-plate-per-state for the year of your birth. If you were born in 1929, you were lucky in the sense that every state did issue a plate that year. For those born during the 1941-1946 era, this would represent an extremely challenging endeavor due to the fact that most states issued windshield stickers, tabs or decals during the war years as a result of the metal shortage. Many of these windshield stickers that validated the license plate would bring $100-$250 each when available.

The main thing to remember is to keep within your budget and storage space. You can have just as much fun in the license-plate hobby with a few limited goals as the collector who collects everything in sight.

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