A few years ago, Andy Bernstein, WorthPoint’s expert on the growing and increasingly complex market for antique and collectibles license plates, made a trip to France and packed 400 automobile license plates in his suitcase. “I was able to pay for the trip with those license plates,” said Bernstein.
For Bernstein, it all began when as a 9-year-old at summer camp, the cook staff gave him outdated Florida and Mississippi license plates. That acquisition turned Bernstein into a boy with a mission.
Andy would cruise through shopping-mall parking lots on his bike, and if he spied an out-of-state plate, he’d linger until the driver came back to his car and ask if he could have the plate when it expired. “Often they were people who had just moved, and they had to get new plates,” Bernstein said.
1958 plate depicting a favorite Colorado pastime (left), New Hampshire’s Live Free or Die plate (is that referring to the moose?) (right)
Though, it wasn’t all that easy. “People’s reactions were usually suspicious, ‘Why do you want those plates?’ or ‘You can’t have them, they have to be turned in,’” Bernstein said. A couple of times a week, he would pedal over to the local junkyard in search of plates on wrecks. “At first, the owner was pretty unfriendly. He didn’t want a kid in there where he could be hurt,” Bernstein said. “But over time, we became friends.”
“It was a long uphill battle, but after about five years, I had managed to collect a license plate from every state and the District of Columbia,” Bernstein said. It was also around this time that a now teenage Bernstein discovered the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. “I couldn’t believe it,” Bernstein said. “I realized I wasn’t in this alone. I wasn’t the only crazy one.”
Bernstein immediately joined and began building a network of friendships that has been even more valuable than the licenses plates he has collected—and he has amassed more than 65,000 plates.
Texas plate remembering the space-shuttle disaster (left), a to-drool-for Maine lobster plate (right)
The license plate, as we know it, began in Massachusetts in 1903, and by the late teens, all the states had adopted some type of standardized license plate. The most sought-after plates are from this early period, particularly those that were porcelain or enamel, which were soon replaced with painted, metal plates. For more on license-plate history and markets, see Bernstein’s blog, The Lure of Collecting Automobile License Plates.
There has been an explosion of varieties and styles of license plates—with specialized plates, vanity plates, and changing styles and graphics. “It is quite common now that when a state is going to change its license plate, it posts several designs on a Web site and lets people vote,” Bernstein said.
A vanity plate from Alabama where someone loves Jon (left) and one from Kentucky showing allegiance to the Louisville Cardinals (right)
The rise of Internet selling, (including at Bernstein’s site, Plate Hut), the variety of plates and the advent of new collectors—including a rise in international collectors—have all led to the creation of “micromarkets,” Bernstein said. “For a 1931 Model A Ford owner in Illinois, the finishing touch is getting 1931 Illinois plates. That is a specialized market.”
In fact, Bernstein sometimes gets calls from film companies looking for period plates to put on a car being used in a scene. License-plate art and handicrafts is another market, as license plates have been used to make items as varied as CD cases, purses, dustpans, toolboxes and birdhouses, Bernstein said.
Europeans have been especially fascinated with American license plates, Bernstein said. “License plates in Europe tend to be long and black with just numbers and maybe a letter to indicate the country, so our plates with their designs and colors really catch the eye.”
An old-style Rome, Italy, plate that showed little style
The prices for license plates, as a result or these complex and varied markets, have remained strong, Bernstein said. Still, while the rarest porcelain plate can fetch $10,000, a beginner starting out with a one-plate-per-state goal can manage for between $150 and $350.
As for his own collecting, Bernstein is in the hunt to add commemorative, political and picture plates to his collection—as well as those rare and elusive porcelain plates. And where does he store them all? Well, some are with his parents and some with a friend. But a large portion are arranged on a bookshelf in his apartment. “My brother says he feels sorry for the people who live downstairs,” Bernstein said, “because one day they are going to be buried in an avalanche of license plates.”
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