Why Do People Pay Thousands of Dollars for License Plates?

Although it might be kind of a niche hobby, there are folks out there who collect car license plates. Some people collect stamps or coins, but vintage license plates can also give hobbyists a connection to the past. And in some cases, they might pay more than you might think for these pieces of metal. In fact, some rare license plates command five-figure prices or more.

What is license plate collecting?

License plate collecting is a hobby where folks seek out rare and unique plates. These plates can date back to some of the first automobiles, and that’s pretty old. While in today’s world, plates are kept up to date with tags, states used to issue new plates every year. And that provides plenty of metal for those interested in collecting. 

According to NPR, recently, the “holy grail” of license plates came up for auction. The license plate originated in Chicago and boasts the number 1, which makes it highly collectible. Between 1903 and 1907, the city of Chicago actually issued its own license plates. And the year 1904, which this plate is from, is the rarest. Estimates say the license plate could sell for as high as $6,000. 

Which license plates should you collect?

With 50 states all having their own unique plates, starting a collection can feel a little bit overwhelming. Some folks choose to narrow down which kinds of plates they want to search out. These can include sample plates, government plates, or vintage plates from a specific state.

An old license plate on a vintage car from Oklahoma.
Old license plate | Heritage Art via Getty Images

By narrowing down your search, you can set your own limits on what you hunt down. And that should help collecting feel less stressful. It is also worth noting that some people choose to collect foreign plates, and that can add some complexity to this hobby. But, foreign plates could make your collection more unique compared to others. 

Which plates are most rare?

The first license plates for vehicles were introduced in France starting in 1893. According to Rarest.org, there are a range of plates that are especially rare. These plates include some from North Korea and former U.S. territories like Alaska. Because of the rarity of these plates, they command quite a high value in collector markets. 

An old license plate on the back of a Trabant in East Germany.
Trabant license plate | Geoff Garrett via Getty Images

Perhaps the rarest plates originate in the United Kingdom. Because there are such strict plate laws there, some have become extremely desirable. One license plate even sold for over half a million pounds, which is absolutely nuts. 

How can you start collecting?

If you are interested in collecting vintage or rare license plates, now is a great time to get started. With the benefits of the internet, you can easily research plates to determine which might spark your interest. 

Of course, you do not have to limit yourself to the online world. There are still barn finds to be had. And you might be able to find local enthusiasts to help you get started. After all, one of the best parts of a new hobby is the folks that it can connect you to.

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