‘Registered in R.I.’ License Plate is a Real Diamond Found in the Rough

Last year, at the beginning of the holiday season, I received an e-mail from a young lady by the name of Nancy who dabbles in antiques and collectibles and frequents estate sales. What immediately caught my attention was the attached photo of a small, white-on-black porcelain license plate with the words “Registered in R.I.” at the top and the number A.9. It appears that Nancy was attending an estate sale in southern New England and the friend she was with spotted the old porcelain license plate and suggested she “add it to her pile” of items.

This license plate with the words “Registered in R.I.” at the top and featuring the number A.9 was found at an estate sale. It was a picked up as an afterthought… a great afterthought, as it turned out to be a diamond in the rough.

Taking the advice of her friend, she picked it up and went, along with “her pile,” and checked out with a $500 tab.

As Nancy proceeded to research exactly what she had by contacting people with knowledge of automotive-related collectibles, each response was accompanied by an offer: $500; $1,000; $2,000; $2,500. Her email message to me simply indicated that “everyone wants this plate” and asked “what exactly is it?!”

She did not include a phone number, but I immediately responded: “If you still have this plate in your possession, please call me ASAP to discuss.”

The next morning, as I sat working at my desk, the phone rang. It was Nancy. I was elated to learn that she still had this shiny porcelain license plate. Having lived in Rhode Island and specialized in Rhode Island license plates for several years, I explained to Nancy that what she had found was an extremely rare First Issue Rhode Island dealer license plate from 1904.

The plate has a “54” painted on the back, indicating that it was issued in May of 1904.

The condition of this plate was so pristine that, for a plate of this vintage, it almost looked like it was made yesterday. Rhode Island was the second state in the union to issue license plates to automobiles. The elusive “Rhode Island Register,” as it is often referred to by collectors, was used from 1904-08. For the year 1904, there were fewer than 900 private passenger vehicles registered in the state and some 30 or so dealer plates. While passenger car plates were issued in pairs for this period, dealer plates were only issued singly. On the back of these small plates is the inscription with the number 54 or 64—these being codes for May 1904 and June 1904, respectively.

Passenger car plates started with the number 1 and dealer plates were designated with the letter A. I own passenger plate number 225 in my own collection. Nancy had found the ninth dealer plate ever issued in the state of Rhode Island, a true treasure.

There are four variables that make this plate so desirable: 1) it was a first issue; 2) it was a porcelain plate; 3) the condition could simply not be nicer; and 4) it was a low-number plate. To find old dealer license plates in nice condition is not so easy, as dealer plates are very often transferred and used from one vehicle to another. This practice is commonplace to this day. As such, these license plates take a lot of abuse and are more likely to get damaged and have extra holes.

The “Registered in R.I.” plate in my collection. It’s rare, but not $14,000 rare, like the one Nancy found.

My appraisal of this rare find placed the value at about $15,000. After a good two hours of conversation, Nancy asked me if I could find her a buyer. I gladly agreed and we soon became great phone buddies. Nancy would call every day to see where offers stood for her plate. The opening bid was $10,000. After a two-week period, a potential buyer phoned me to place an offer of $14,000. Nancy accepted the offer and the three of us arranged to meet up in Massachusetts and finalize the sale.

After a five-hour drive, I met Nancy and her husband at a local restaurant. We sat down while she unwrapped the small Rhode Island porcelain plate. As I held it in my hands and examined it closely, she could not help but plead: “please tell me that it is real and not a fake.”

With much excitement, I responded that, indeed, not only was it authentic but that it truly was everything we had discussed and then some.

About a half an hour later my buyer showed up. He sat down at the table, examined this wonderful and rare early R.I. plate and there were smiles all around. After completing the transaction, the buyer departed with a beautiful addition to his extensive collection of early New England porcelain license plates.

While the search and hunt of collectibles may be dominated by the tools of our high-tech world, it is nice to know that there are still rare items to be found in the rough.

Happy Hunting!

Andy Bernstein is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible license plates.

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