Quick Facts About Collecting Vintage License Plates
- The oldest vintage license plates date prior to 1900.
- In addition to age, collectible plates are sought for their color, origin, shape, condition or the history that goes along with them, among other attributes.
- Junkyards, dumps and auto scrap yards could be an alternative for affordable plates. But you’ll also find them, perhaps for a little more money, by shopping antique shops, flea markets, automotive swap meets and thrift shops.
- Rusty, bent and generally beat up old plates might be great for decorating a patio or game room, but avid collectors only pay premium prices for plates in good to excellent condition.
Discovering Vintage License Plates
I once saw two men get in a fast and furious bidding war over one at a live auction a number of years ago. Before then, I didn’t really think all that much about people hunting down these functional metal plates for collections.
You might be surprised to find that there are people in the world who will fight and scratch to get their hands on particular license plates for a collection, relishing the hunt along the way. This is the type of collector dedicated enough to join The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA).
A Passion for License Plates
If you visit the ALPCA Web site (see links at right), you’ll note the home page touts license plate collecting as “The most enjoyable hobby… Ever.” I can vouch that collecting is the most enjoyable hobby ever, albeit I’m a little biased, but specifically collecting license plates? I’m not sure about that, but willing to give these folks due respect for their passion just the same.
It appears that license plate collectors have conventions, set up Web sites devoted to collections and exchange information with other like-minded individuals just like so many other groups devoted to collecting hobbies. The ALPCA organization even has a section on its site to introduce newcomers to the world of collecting license plates.
“License plate collecting can be a challenging and complex hobby. There's much more to it than simply having a box of old tags in the attic, or nailing loot from the local junkyard to the walls of a garage or barn -- but these are good starts,” the ALPCA site reports.
License Plate History
While browsing this information, I learned that the oldest license plates date back to before 1900. In addition to age, collectible plates are sought for their color, origin, shape, condition or the history that goes along with them, among other attributes.
“There are so many different varieties of license plates in existence that collecting them all would be an impossible task. Most collectors set goals of collecting plates that are somehow close to their hearts. Perhaps that would be a collection of plates from a single year, or maybe from a certain state or town. Some people even collect plates from foreign countries that no longer exist,” according to the site.
Where to Find Old License Plates
But where would you go to start a license plate collection if your interest has been peaked about that sort of thing? Junkyards, dumps and auto scrap yards could be an alternative for affordable plates. But you’ll also find them, perhaps for a little more money, by shopping antique shops, flea markets, automotive swap meets and thrift shops. ALPCA even lists regional license plate swap meets on its site.
What to Look for When Collecting License Plates
According to the ALPCA site, look for pre-1969 plates as a general rule. Newer plates won’t be nearly as valuable in the long term unless they are from a hard to find state, like Alaska or Hawaii, or specialty plates: handicapped, ham radio, police and the like.
Keep in mind that older plates are generally going to be more expensive. If you find a really old plate at a reasonable price, buy it when you see it. Even if you don’t want to keep it for your collection, you can sell it for more collecting cash or trade it with another collector who would love to have it.
Try to buy quality plates that are in good condition. Rusty, bent and generally beat up old plates might be great for decorating a patio or game room, but avid collectors want plates in good to excellent condition. And, keep in mind that truck and trailer plates aren’t worth as much as passenger car plates in most cases.
Further Research on License Plate Values
Prices can range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars in the license plate market so it pays to have a reference guide handy if you’re going to get serious about collecting them. It’s worth tracking down a copy of License Plate Values by Bob and Chuck Chrisler, if you’d like to get serious about this hobby.