During my years as a license plate collector, I have been relatively safe from inadvertently obtaining fake plates, while thinking they were real. I have only been burned once, back at the ALPCA Convention in 2003 when I bought what I thought was a Ras al-Khaimah plate from the United Arab Emirates. I didn’t know much about them—just wanted some international flavour in my collection at the time—and I bought the plate because it was cool-looking. Six years later, I would conclude that it was a fake and donate it to the ALPCA fakes collection, which is intended to educate collectors by showing them examples of what to avoid. Still, it was 75 bucks down the toilet.
There are US jurisdictions whose older plates have been mercilessly counterfeited by people such as the infamous Repro Bob— look out if you’re after 1920s Alaska plates. But here in Ontario, the plates in the collecting pool are relatively clear of reproductions. However, that’s probably because Ontario plates aren’t particularly rare and valuable until you get down into the 19-teens.
Repaint Roy, a guy who used to sell plates at flea markets in east and central Ontario, used to sell the flat, wire-framed tin plates from 1912 to 1916. However, one of the big problems with these plates is that the paint is quite fragile, and it’s not uncommon to find them in illegible condition, with little or no paint remaining. Roy would have these plates stripped and resprayed with an all-too-bright colour of background paint, and then send them to a silkscreener to apply the intricate coat-of-arms and numbers. These were made for classic car guys, and it’s pretty clear from looking at them that they’re not the real thing. The most obvious thing, if the glossy condition of a 19-teens plate isn’t obvious to you, is that the numbers are significantly smaller than they ought to be. The picture here shows three glossy fakes (images thanks to Jim Becksted) and one original plate in great shape, with duller finish and general stains. The real tin plate is about as good as it gets.
This past summer, I replied to a Kijiji ad from a seller in the Woodstock area who was selling Ontario plates of many years, for $20 each. I looked at a lousy picture and saw that there was a 1911 Ontario in the lot. If it was a real porcelain, which I wasn’t sure, the price would have been about 5% of the plate’s true value. Either it was an amazing deal, or fake that might be worthy of some close-up study. I decided to bite.
I asked the seller if the plate was made of flat sheet metal, or if it was porcelain enamel. I’ve seen Repaint Roy’s 1911 fakes and they’re all-metal, and somewhat thin, too. The seller replied that the plate was made of enamel. That was encouraging to hear, as I had never heard of a fake 1911 Ontario made of porcelain.
We made a deal, and the seller sent the plate to me through the mail. Two weeks and twenty bucks plus shipping later, the plate arrived in my mailbox one August afternoon. The plate was sandwiched in between some cardboard, and it felt like it was approximately the correct weight. I briefly allowed my hopes to rise, but really, I suspected something was up. I opened the package.
First of all, the plate wasn’t finished in the correct colours. The blue background was a bit too light, but all the characters were a glossy gray colour—something that wasn’t apparent in the poorly-lit picture I saw. The characters appeared to be made of glossy paint that was thickly applied with some kind of tape-on stencil. The font of the characters themselves was well reproduced. With my fingers, I could feel a slightly depressed surface when I touched the gray numbers, as if the numbers were formed by applying masking tape while several thick layers of blue paint were used on the background. The plate itself was too thin, and not actually coated with porcelain enamel (meaning the seller lied). It was a heavily glossed surface, but clearly not porcelain, and clearly a fake. However, it was still money well-spent, because I had never seen a fake of this construction before. I’ll show it around at swap meets for now, and then I’ll donate it to the ALPCA fake plate collection the next time I attend a convention.
While on the subject of reproductions, I’ll briefly mention the fake 1905 Ontario rubber plate I saw in Bothwell this summer. It was not made of rubber at all, but rather some kind of fibre board. It was half the thickness of a real plate, and the numbers were not made in the correct font. The actual font is somewhat unique, with curves throughout the digits 2, 3, 6, 8, 9 and 0.
These characters do not have straight-line edges at any point (aside from the bottom of the 2). For example, a true zero on a rubber plate should be an ellipse with curving throughout. On the fake plate #1908 pictured here, the sides of the zero are straight-- and that ain't right. There are other rubber fakes out there—some of which I saw for sale as part of a collection a couple of years ago.
Finally, there’s the 1903-04 leather issue. Fakes of this kind are easy to spot—the shape of the leather shield may be different, or it may look too new, or it may have incorrect numbers, as was the case when I bought a fake leather kit a few years ago, for study and then subsequent donation to ALPCA. The kit I had featured aluminum numbers with nail holes—the type that are commonly seen as identification numbers on rural Ontario hydro poles. The # 44 pic shows my fake leather plate as it was when I donated it to ALPCA. The screws on the numbers were the only reliable way I had to keep the numbers firmly affixed, as glue wasn’t working. Another known fake leather features the number 9 in a similar aluminum hydro pole style, but it has rivets visible on the face of the number, which there shouldn’t be. Also, the leather background looks far too shiny. These plates are over 100 years old—the leather on a real one will never appear to be new. The numbers on a real Ontario leather plate are more textured than the fakes shown here and they are riveted from the rear only. The only rivets that should appear on the front side are the ones holding the bottom-centre oval in place.
Hope this is helpful to some collectors, especially newer ones. Beware of fake 1944 and 1952 window stickers, too. But that's a column for another time.