This section is broken up into multiple sections, as follows:
- Back in “the good old days”
- Other Clubs
- Other Sources
- Rarity & Condition
- Non-passenger Types
- Specialties & Optionals
- Boosters, Souvenirs, Fakes, and Legalities
- Displaying Your Plates
- Cleaning Your Plates
- Which Plates To Collect
- A Final Word
These days, collecting anything – no matter now obscure or popular – is easier than ever. The first step I would tell any collector, regardless of age, is to join ALPCA, the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. (More about this below).
One of the many great things about collecting plates is that it is a hobby for everyone – regardless of age, gender, race, location, and income – and appeals to different collectors for different reasons. Let’s take a closer look at collecting license plates.
Back in “the good old days”
You’ll likely hear a story from a collector about a time he met a guy with barn full of plates, or found a plate on a roadside, or otherwise fell into the hobby after stumbling upon a plate somewhere. With greater urbanization, stricter laws regarding used license plates, and the increase of diversions and souvenirs, these types of encounters are far less likely to occur.
The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, or ALPCA, is the largest club in the world devoted to the hobby. The most valuable asset of the club, in my opinion, is having access to local and national meets. These are places collectors gather to buy, sell, trade, share, and discuss license plates. ALPCA’s website provides further information and resources for collectors, including an Archives which attempts to list every license plate known to exist past and present. Every two months, ALPCA publishes a full-color magazine, called PLATES. In addition to columns, feature articles, and club information, it has a classified section.
ALPCA is not the only club out there. Some much smaller ones exist, such as the Arizona License Plate Society. Online groups (e.g., through Facebook) are prolific and can be a fine resource for information, buying, selling, and seeing other collectors’ plates.
While joining ALPCA is the best way to build a collection, it is in no way the only means. Let’s look at other places to pick up plates.
- Antique Stores
It is common enough to find plates in antique stores that it’s worth checking out. They may be stacked in a bin on the floor, displayed in a glass case, or hung on the wall. Generally speaking, plates in antique stores are overpriced. I have seen $5 and under plates being sold for $40 or more! The problem is that sellers don’t tend to take condition and rarity into account, just age. (More about this later).
Yet I have also found some gems at good prices, even at prices below what I’d pay at a meet. As with flea markets, the only way to know if you’re getting a good deal is through experience, by contacting a more experienced collector, or by having a guidebook.
- Car Shows
At car shows, you will probably find some plates because a lot of car enthusiasts collect automobile-related things as well. Plus, you may see some very old plates on cars—the kind of plates that would’ve been on the cars when they were registered.
- eBay / the Internet
Before the advent of the Internet, collectors might travel far and wide to meet up, and typically they corresponded with handwritten letters. Like anything, license plates must yield to the times, and while I personally almost never buy any plates on the Internet, I understand that like any form of commerce the hub of activity is online. Many collectors now buy, sell, and trade on the Internet. Know that you will generally pay higher prices online, in addition to shipping, and beware of potential scams (as with any business conducted on the Internet).
- Flea Markets
You can get a sweet deal at a flea market, but you may have to do some hunting and attend several ones before you find anything. If you’re unsure if something is a fair price don’t rely on the seller to tell you—they may not have much experience with plates.
- Garage Sales & Estate Sales
Garage sales and estate sales may also yield some finds. At garage sales you’re likely to find little more than a seller’s recent plate(s) from their car. Estate sales have more potential to yield a real treasure—as the lot likely includes items from a senior, the potential for an older plate is greater, and depending on who’s administering the sale the price may be lower than found anywhere else.
- Junkyards/Salvage Yards
The rules with junkyards vary from state to state. In California, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, for example, plates absolutely cannot leave the yard. But in recent years I’ve had success in Idaho, Montana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Georgia. Even in states where it is limited or not allowed, there may be a pile of plates lying around you can sort through or have. Generally speaking, leave plates which are not expired. The yard manager will likely ask you not to take these, or require the sticker be removed if you do want them.
If you live in or travel to a state which allows for it, bring a few screwdrivers and a wrench. Check in with the office first and explain that you are a collector. Due to increasing insurance regulations, it is more difficult than in days past to gain entry, but it’s always okay to ask. If they don’t charge anything for the plates, double check or offer, say, $1 a plate. Such acts put yourself and other collectors in a respectable light. In any case, thank them for the opportunity and treat the yard with respect. Even if it’s full of junky cars, it’s still a place of business.
- Chance Encounter
The key here—and with buying plates entirely—is to always keep your eyes and ears open. You just never know how, who, when, and which person or place will lead to license plates. For example, my grandparents traveled back east shortly after I’d started collecting. I received 3 or 4 plates from people they knew but who didn’t even know me. Whether through family or a complete stranger, you may come across plates in ways you didn’t expect.
Rarity and Condition
The value of a plate is basically determined by two things: rarity and condition.
Factors that influence rarity:
- If the plate’s state issues in singles or pairs
- The state’s practice regarding expired plates
- The term of issuance of a given base or design
Factors that influence condition:
- The presence of dents, scratches, and other marks
- The vibrancy and intactness of the paint or color
- The effect of bolts, screws, and other attachments
In general, a passenger plates is worth more than a comparable non-passenger plate. For example, a 1987 California passenger is of higher value than a 1987 California truck.
Plates for trucks, trailers, and the like are often slightly different than the regular auto plates. They might, as in Texas, have the type of non-passenger printed on it. Or, as in California, they might simply have a different serial format. Other non-passenger types include sample, motorcycle, military plates like National Guard and Veterans, handicap or disabled person, bus, and dealer. Motorcycle plates are sometimes miniaturized versions of the passenger plate, while other times they have graphics and other information removed.
Vanities, or “personalized” plates, have the motorists’ own choice of letters and numbers on it. Drivers pay extra for the privilege of having a vanity plate. Most often, the plate is of the same design as the base plate. A few states, most notably Kansas, regularly or in the past have issued the vanity plate on a different design.
Specialties & Optionals
Specialty plates are available at an extra cost, and the funds go to a certain cause or organization. This can open up whole subsets of collections, as categories can include the environment, education, animals, and many others. The value of specialty plates can be difficult to determine. This is because of their fairly recent introduction.
The Florida Challenger is generally considered to be the first specialty plate, offered in 1987. Some states have many (including Florida, Kentucky, and Montana), while others (e.g., Wyoming, North Dakota) have very few if any at all. To further complicate matters, there are various rules about specialties that vary from state to state. Arizona has a number of full-plate graphic plates that are distinctly different than the base plates. Maryland, meanwhile, has a greater number of specialties, but all of them consist of just a decal that is placed on a regular passenger plate. And there’s all variations in between. Full-plate graphics, because of their uniqueness and aesthetics, tend to fetch higher prices. The cost of a specialty is based more on supply and demand than on rarity and condition.
Optionals are passenger plates issued as an alternate choice to a given base plate. Unlike specialties, they are either offered at no additional cost, or for a nominal fee (with the money not going to any specific cause or organization). States often issue optionals to recognize anniversaries or special events; in such cases the optional would only be issued for a limited time. In other cases optionals can be offered for many years. In some instances, optionals become general issue plates due to their popularity.
Souvenirs, Booster, Fakes, and Legalities
There are thousands of souvenir plates. These are made just for that purpose—as souvenirs or gifts. They might be for a park, a city, a state, a sports team, or any number of things. They are not meant to be put on cars. A booster plate is similar, but is generally intended to display on a vehicle (on the front, in states which require only a rear plate). These are rare—most came about in 1976 for the Bicentennial, in states such as Vermont and New Jersey. It is highly unlikely you’d ever find a fake plate, but if your unsure about a potential purchase it’s best to leave it alone, and if you already acquired it, you can rely on more experienced collectors to help you out (in any case, don’t go ahead and sell it or pass it to someone else, because if it is fake then you’re liable).
Buying and selling license plates is perfectly legal nationwide, as long as they are expired—that is, retired from use. For example, if the plate has a sticker of March 2007, it is expired. The same rules don’t apply in all countries. In some places, taking plates, even expired ones, is illegal. If you are outside of the US or Canada and you receive or find a license plate, always know that country’s laws before you leave!
Displaying Your Plates
Once you’ve started your collection, you’ll surely want to display them. Hanging them up on a wall in a room in your house or in the garage are common ways. Though license plates are resilient to the elements, having them outdoors will diminish their condition and thus their value.
It is a good idea to catalog your plates with an inventory, which can be easily done in a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel. Typical important categories include the state or jurisdiction, serial, year, condition, description, where and from whom you got it, and, if you paid for it, how much it cost.
You may also want to do a photo inventory. Take a picture of your plate by putting it flat on preferably a dark surface. Stand or kneel directly over it and take the picture. In mine I save the picture with the state abbreviation and the serial (e.g., CA 1ABC234). A photo inventory is the quickest and easiest way to determine which plates you have in your collection.
It seems like a lot of work. But down the road, you may be quite thankful you did it. I access my inventory to check potential purchases against what I already own, help determine a fair price for plates bought and sold, search for desired articles, and increase my knowledge of license plates.
A website called PlateVault is a fabulous inventory tool. Though there is an annual cost, it is well worth it because you can upload pictures of your plates along with the pertinent information (using a drop-down menu and blank text fields). This has two benefits: it is a cloud-based inventory system, so you have it somewhere safe from harm or theft, and it allows for commerce with the general public and other collectors. You can also, of course, view others’ collections.
Cleaning Your Plates
Is a plate dirty? The good news is, most plates are easy to clean. You may not want to clean them—a little dirt shows it has been on the road, and some collectors, such as myself, prefer that. If you want to clean them, however, all you need in most cases is a gentle sponge, warm water, and dish soap.
Never use a scraper or anything that will mar the paint. If a plate is bent, sometimes the aluminum is flexible enough that you can simply bend it back to its original shape. Sticker goo is trickier. There are collectors with more extensive experience in this department you can use as a resource.
Some collectors will repaint plates with chipped or faded paint, or hire a professional to do so. The aim is to restore the plate to as close to its original version as possible. The benefit is two-fold: aesthetically it can look better, and it may increase the value of the plate. If the person doing the job is not skilled, however, you could end up with a mess on your hands. It must also be worth repainting; that is, a badly rusted old plate where the original colors are hardly distinguishable is a good candidate for repaint. But a 2002 plate that was exposed to too much sun is not, because you can probably just get the same kind of plate easily. Some collectors believe a repaint automatically makes the plate lose value. If you think the plate you are buying is a repaint, ask—an honest collector or dealer will tell you.
You’ll want to store your plates properly to maintain their beauty and value. For those not on display, the best way to do this is by using plastic bags. And lucky for us, perfect sleeves are easily available. They are perfectly clear so that you don’t have to remove the bag to get a good look at the plate. The bag will ward off physical damage without adding weight or bulk to your collection. I have always obtained these bags from other collectors.
Boxes are another matter. Some collectors use regular storage bins. Some use fruit boxes—these stack well and are the perfect width, but are difficult to get. Whatever way you go, you don’t want to make them too heavy, in case you wish to move them, lift or access them. Plus if they are stacked the heavy weight can damage the boxes below it. Labeling the bins or boxes will save you lots of time and effort. You can arrange them any way you like, but the most common way is by state. For instance, box 1 might contain Alabama through Florida, box 2 Georgia through Maryland, and so on. The division will likely change as your collection grows, so best to use labels which can be removed.
Which Plates to Collect
Okay, so now more than ever there are thousands of plates to choose from. You may already like certain ones, or you may want them all. Most collectors have some areas of specialization—certain plates they try to get more than others. Here are some ideas for specialization:
Some collectors focus on a certain country or countries, like Canada or Mexico, or a region, like Asia. Foreign plates are harder to find, but some really enjoy the hunt.
- Graphics & Specialties
The graphic and specialty boom has opened up lots of opportunities for specialization. You can collect plates that have a certain theme. Common ones are environmental (birds, parks, animals, water, mountains), education, sports, and history-related (anniversaries, events, monuments, etc.). There are still many more. At one convention, a collector put together a prize-winning display of plates having to do with food.
Motorcycle plates and military-related plates are the most likely areas of specialization when it comes to non-passengers; these have strong affiliations with certain people while more general categories (truck, trailer) do not. A quick note on U.S. government plates: these are now illegal to sell even if expired. Some collectors still have them because their circulation was not as controlled as it is today. A state government plate is different; just do not buy plates which say “U.S. Government” on them.
A run is a series of plates that have something distinct in common. The most common kind of run is having one for every year of a particular jurisdiction. A birth year run would contain a plate of every state from the year you were born. States that use county coding offer the possibility of county runs (one plate per year state, all the same county). A run could even be just one state, one year, if the collector were trying to get every kind of plate made for that state, that year (passenger, truck, trailer, etc.).
- Specific Serial Combinations
A small area of specialization is specific serial combinations. For example, you can seek plates that:
-have repeating numbers or letters (AAA, 333, etc.), or words (CAT, TOP)
-are sequential (456, JKL)
-are palindromes (941149)
-spell out initials (MBS for Matthew B. Smith)
-contain a number of significance (1978 for a collector born in 1978, 9267 for ALPCA member number 9267, and so on)
- And a hundred more…
All sorts of features or qualities of a plate may attract a collector. You can decide on your own area of specialization. For instance, after some time I have developed an affinity for oddly-stickered plates—ones with stickers placed in multiple spots on the plate, or thick layers of stickers, or upside-down stickers.
Categories listed above as well as your own categories can be combined. Runs can be very valuable, but as a general rule having a specialization does not in itself increase the value of a plate.
- No specialization
You can, on the other hand, not specialize at all. Having a specialization does not make you any better or worse a collector. But more than likely you will tend towards a specialization whether you realize it or not. There are some many kinds of plates that if you tried to get one of everything you’d be running in circles or spending a ton of money. Either way, have fun figuring it out.
A Final Word
Collectors get into the hobby for a variety of reasons. Most have a seminal moment when they became “hooked.” Whether started as a youngster or as an adult, whether in a small town in Maine or a big city in California, whether because of an interest in cars or an inkling for numbers and letters, whether sticking to older, simply-designed license plates or pursuing recent graphic plates, and whether purely for fun or as part of a business, one factor seems to bind us all: a fascination with license plates.
License plates are much more than pieces of aluminum stamped with digits and painted. There is a rich, century-plus long history behind them, and they have other purposes beyond their functional use as a means of identification.
When I hold a license plate in my hands, I think of the life the plate has lived—what kind of vehicle it adorned, where it traveled, the things it was subjected to—and also see them as a miniature works of art. Despite this conviction, I sometimes struggle to convey my passion of license plate collecting to non-collectors—how the feel, appearance, and even smell of a plate can stir my soul. If this sounds like your experience, you are probably a collector, too. My hope is that through websites like mine and through ALPCA the joy of collecting will be greater, and you will be inspired to help carry on the hobby for your generation and for generations to come.