January 14, 2014

News & Features

Last piece of the puzzle for collectors: Vintage license plates

New York Times News Service

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Ed Ragsdale, of the Indianapolis area, has 60,000 vintage license plates in his garage and makes his living selling them to collectors. (Tudor Van Hampton / The New York Times)

For some car collectors, completing a vehicle restoration with tires, wheels and paint that look period-correct is just not enough. Even such details as the license plates must be the correct vintage.

"It's the last detail," says Jeff Minard, a license plate collector in Pasadena, Calif. "You get the owner's manual — and then you really want the license plate."

Minard, 65, explains that while antique plates could be valued collectibles on their own, they also make an ideal finishing touch for an old car.

"It's part of the car's furniture," says Minard, who was a curator for "License Plates: Unlocking the Code," an exhibition of 220 plates on display through March 30 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The show celebrates the centennial of California's first state-issued plate, which arrived in 1914.

Like California, most states began issuing plates — their original role was less about law enforcement and more about verifying that the car's owner had paid a tax — in the early 1900s. Today, all but a handful of states let car collectors register vintage plates to their old cars, but some basic qualifications must be met: Vehicles generally need to be at least 25 years old, and the year on the plate must match the model year of the car.

The requirements to qualify for year-of-manufacture, or YOM, plates vary. In California, for example, all letter and number combinations must be cleared first. Cars in Illinois must be at least 25 years old to qualify, while Washington state requires them to be more than 30 years old. In Indiana, collectors may use vintage plates but are required to buy a historic-vehicle plate, keep it in the car and renew it each year.

Finding vintage plates can be challenging, but swap meets and websites such as Craigslist and eBay help connect buyers and sellers. While some plate years, county codes and states are difficult to find, not all vintage plates are rare.

Over the years, many plate collectors have rescued surplus plates — ones that were never issued before their expiration — from state motor vehicle offices before they were scrapped.

"At the end of the year, I'd bring my pickup truck and start loading boxes of plates," says Greg Gibson, a collector in Fenton, Mich. Gibson is also the president of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, which counts among its members about 3,000 hobbyists from around the world.

For Ed Ragsdale, 50, what began as a hobby turned into a business. After collecting for several years, in 2009 he found himself out of work, so he began selling vintage plates full time from his garage in suburban Indianapolis.

"I'm actually doing this as my job now," Ragsdale says. "I normally sell a plate every day, if not 10."

His holdings include some 60,000 plates, many of which are the unused vintage examples called new old stock by collectors, that he and others saved from the trash. Some of his work is restoring and selling especially desirable plates that were in poor condition when he found them.

Most of the business comes from car collectors looking for a YOM plate, he adds. Parked outside the garage was a 1957 Pontiac Chieftain with a 1957 yellow and black Indiana plate.

Market values of vintage plates differ widely. The earliest plates, which can sell for thousands of dollars, were not issued by states; motorists were assigned a number and then handmade their plates out of leather or iron. Early state-issued plates are also valuable, including the flat, porcelain variety that by the late 1920s had been replaced by embossed lettering.

Prices have taken off as more states have adopted YOM programs.

"It's really changed the dynamic of the plate market," Gibson says. "To me, the holy grail was finding a 1901 New York plate, because it was the very first plate that was issued in this country." He bought the handmade leather plate in 1983 for $125. Today, it is worth at least $1,000, he says.

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