It was suggested by readers of this column that I write about an unfolding event in the lives of Ontario plate collectors. It actually didn’t occur to me to write about this, at least to start, but given the scale of the event and its impact on a number of collectors, it’s worth documenting, and like many good stories, this yarn has an unexpected turn.
I am referring to the dispersal of a significant collection of license plates—probably the most significant in all of Canada. The owner of these plates is apparently retiring from being a collector. He is quite reclusive, and I suspect that pretty much no one really knows the entire scope of the collection, as it hadn’t truly been seen in its entirety. There have been hints, legends, and even the occasional appearance at a swap meet by this collector, with some tin trophies in hand. I prefer not to use the collector’s proper name, but for ease of reading and writing, I will refer to this person as Dwight.
Dwight isn’t the type to assemble a display of plates for others to see, and few have seen much of his collection. Prior to the dispersal of Dwight’s collection, most of what I knew came piecemeal from many collectors, all with their own dealings with Dwight. He had been to the local Ontario swap meet in Acton a couple of times, most notably in 2009, when he brought a run of motorcycles to sell to another collector (probably a pre-arranged meeting, given the that the value of the run was well into the thousands of dollars). Other times, Dwight brought a single, high-end plate to show—for example, a Royal motorcade plate, or an early Ontario plate with an astonishingly low number.
The first public event in the dispersal of Dwight’s collection occurred in early March 2011, when I noticed a trio of items on eBay: a repeating number on a 1935 Ontario plate, another one on a 1938 plate, and a pair of Ontario ham radio plates. They had “Buy it Now” prices that were a little steep, but affordable for me. I pulled the trigger and bought the plates. My feedback comments were the second, third and fourth entries in what would eventually become a long list of over 700 feedback remarks.
More plates started popping up—all with “Buy it Now” prices around a hundred dollars or so. That blanket value was too high for some plates, but an absolute steal for others. I bookmarked his auctions and checked them several times a day. It was around that time that I tragically missed a 1960 Lt. Governor plate. I checked his auctions the last thing before I went to bed, and the first thing the following morning. The plate had been posted five minutes after I retired for the evening, and was bought five minutes before I booted up my computer the following morning. The price was a steal—I would have paid double if I had to. I seethed with jealousy briefly, but the silver lining was that the plate had been sold to my good pal Eric Vettoretti. He’d give it a worthy home, and I’d surely get to see it sometime.
As more important Canadian plates surfaced via this seller—low numbers, rare internationals, an Ontario leather, and strange oddball types—I began to speculate as to where they would be coming from. The seller was clearly an agent hired to act on someone’s behalf. When I saw the 1928 truck dealer plate for sale, I decided then and there that it must be Dwight. I had a chance to buy the truck dealer plate—it was listed at a touchable price for such an obscure type—but I opted to let it go. Martine Stonehouse bought it and proudly showed it around at this year’s Acton meet. She described it as the Holy Grail of non-passenger plates from Ontario. She confirmed that it and all the others we had been seeing on eBay had indeed been dispersed from Dwight’s collection. Martine was actually present when Dwight shrewdly and aggressively claimed the truck dealer plate many years before. It sat in Dwight’s residence with a horde of other items for many years before being liberated to Martine in 2011.
While wasting time on the internet, I stumbled across a public Flickr account featuring hundreds of pictures of license plates from Dwight’s collection. It gave me a sneak preview as to what plates were still to come, and it also showed me that a couple of collectors had negotiated their ways into private deals to buy from the collection off-eBay, as evidenced by the folders bearing these collectors’ names.
I would go on to buy items in twelve eBay auctions from Dwight’s collection, including some interesting repeating number plates from the 1960s, a rare 1957 diplomat pair, and the number-2 Lt. Governor plate from 1960, which was actually sold to me by someone who apparently struck an inside deal with Dwight, bought some heavy-hitting plates, and then re-sold them on eBay for a profit.
The auction postings ceased abruptly in August, and the eBay seller ID behind these plate sales was suddenly designated “not a registered user”. Either the seller had chosen to stop using this account, or it had been suspended over some kind of dispute. There are reputed to be many thousands of items in this collection, yet Dwight’s agent had barely sold 700 items. The pressing question became: Where is this collection? Is it still for sale? What’s in it?
No answers. For a couple of months, anyway.
In November, a Kijiji ad surfaced featuring images from the collection, with the remark that it was for sale to qualified buyers. To most people, that might sound kind of snooty—but this collection is very large, and I imagined the seller was interested in moving large quantities of plates, not just a few dozen for a couple hundred dollars. Eric Vettoretti and I read the ad with interest, and we decided to respond, with Eric being the spokesman for both of us. Indeed, we had interpreted the “qualified buyer” definition correctly. He was interested in making volume deals, and not selling a few plates here and there to individual collectors. Eric and I figured we could combine our efforts to become significant enough to be considered qualified.
On a Sunday in December, we drove an empty station wagon down the 401. We passed through the Belleville area and came to within 7 km of exhausting our fuel because we weren’t paying attention to the fuel gauge. The GPS saved our asses and located an OLCO station that happened to be open early on a Sunday. We filled up and laughed at ourselves. We continued westward and eventually arrived at a large self-storage facility right at the 401/427 junction (the largest and busiest interchange in Canada). We expected to find a lot of plates. How extensive the collection was, and how eclectic the selection was anyone’s guess. Dwight’s collection was legendary—hardly anyone had ever seen it, and many had speculated as to what it might contain. We were about to see it up close and personal.
The gate to the facility opened, and we pulled up beside the main building. We went into an office where the agent greeted us. We sat down and chatted to break the ice. He described the collection as being in parts—there was some bulk he wanted to move, but he was aware of our areas of interest and knew there would be plates of value to us in the bulk (indeed, he said that our names had been mentioned to him by other people as possible buyers for some of the collection—apparently Eric and I have developed a reputation). After dealing with the bulk in a storage locker, he said we would move back to his office to look at the higher-end plates, and possibly discuss other memorabilia or uniquely valuable items in the collection that were available. That sounded good to us, so we headed over to the storage locker.
The door rolled up, revealing large plastic tubs stacked full of plates. Each tub must have weighed close to 150 pounds. We dragged them out and started going through them—not to cherry-pick, as that was something the agent specifically wanted to avoid—but to get a representative look at the tubs. We wouldn’t have time to look at each plate, or match pairs, but there were certainly many pairs to be found, albeit separated. On the other hand, there were a lot of quarterly truck plates in the tubs, and we’d be taking them, too. One bright spot was that they were all in good condition—we certainly wouldn’t be throwing much out due to excessive rust.
We looked over the tubs for at least an hour, and still didn’t look at everything we were presented with—we’re talking five full tubs, each one the size of a hockey equipment bag. Eventually, we agreed to terms with the agent. I also had a chance to look for some Sault Ste. Marie city plates from a few boxes of municipals. It was a courtesy on the part of the agent, since it was clear that Eric and I were serious buyers and planned to significantly lighten the load of undesirable plates.
We moved to the office and started going through some organized racks of older plates. The agent’s helper had separated them by year, and then put the numbers in order—they were a breeze to paw through. Still, it took us over an hour to pull stacks of plates from many different years from the 1920s upward. There were lots of nice condition plates from these years, but the condition began to wane as we progressed backwards through time the early 1920s. By the time when we looked at the flat plates of the late ‘teens, all that remained were very rough plates—the type that won’t trade easily. There were quite a few wire-rimmed tin plates from 1916 in OK shape, but 1915 back to 1912 were very rough, and nothing to write home about. I had never seen so many 1915 plates in one spot, but the best of them were merely legible, and not of display calibre. There was a box of 1911 porcelain plates, but sadly, they were all rusted badly or had missing sections—all the gems, apparently, had already been liquidated on eBay.
One thing became obvious to me as we slogged through the plates: This wasn’t so much a collection as it was a full-on hoard. There were nice plates here, to be sure, but it was also littered with so many duplicate items that I couldn’t really explain why they were there. I mean, who really needs fifty different 1948 Ontario plates in a collection? That’s what we were looking at for each year: There were fifty-odd plates for each year from 1921 onward. The plates had been organized by the agent to make them easier to go through, but there hadn’t been time to organize anything newer than 1959. The 1960-and-onward plates were still in the storage locker inside the building—all mixed up inside tubs and tubs of license plates. Never had I seen so much in such a tight space—and I’ve been to Ernie Wilson’s house.
Another tell-tale sign of likely hoarding is that some of the items were clearly stored improperly in a leaky basement for many years. One of the most interesting plates I found that day was a 1967 Confederation test plate, with white characters on a black background, and round bolt holes—probably a test from the die manufacturer in 1966 before shipping the newly-designed dies to Ontario for their 1967 production run. I’ve seen one before—I was narrowly scooped on it—and for all I knew, this plate in Dwight’s collection was the same one I had seen. The right side was OK, and the face was somewhat scraped. Tragically, it had been stored on its side in a puddle of water. The entire left side of the plate was severely rusted, with some portions completely crumbled away from the oxidation.
We had a time budget of two hours and change to spend, but with all the items to sift through, and with our discussions with the agent, our visit stretched past three hours and was quickly approaching four. We finished adding items to our enlarging “buy” pile and came to an understanding with the agent. The details of the understanding can’t be revealed, and I cannot entertain private requests to leak that info out… Some things just have to stay under wraps. Of course, I continue my custom of writing about significant adventures in the world of plate collecting, since that’s what 2 Cents is all about—and this is the most significant “adventure” on which I’ve embarked to date. We did it to acquire great stuff for our respective collections, and we intend on reselling the rest, and no doubt, as we bring some of the bounty to swap meets like Acton or Grimsby, word will get around that we bought out part of Dwight’s collection. That’s no secret.
We gingerly loaded up our five tubs of plates into the hold of Eric’s wagon. Eric went along with my gamble that we’d only need one vehicle—against his better judgment—and although the rear end was riding low, the suspension held strong. We had to empty a sixth tub and spread the plates from it around the car—under seats and inside foot holds—and leave the empty tub behind. The five-hour ride home was fairly smooth, but given that we had many plates in the back, we were accompanied by the sound of rattling license plates all the way home. To most people, it’s annoying, but to us, it’s a beautiful sound.
I normally end a 2 Cents article about a successful hunt with a simple remark about the ride home, but that’s not where this story ends. We acquired well over 2000 plates between the two of us—more than either of us have ever owned at one time—and even as I write this column, I’m still not done counting my half. We arrived home at about 10 pm on a Sunday night. I had work the following morning, Eric was travelling on business all week, and we had to drop everything in the meantime, so it stayed in Eric’s garage until the following weekend. What a long week that was—Eric and I were e-mailing back-and-forth, but neither of us were able to do anything about our loot until the next Friday.
Friday evening came, a very cold one at that, and I showed up at Eric’s place with a couple of double-doubles from Tim Horton’s. We stood there sipping our coffee and looking at the plethora before us. How do you organize thousands of plates in a 200-square-foot garage with the door closed because it’s freezing outside? The answer: meticulously. We fired up a couple of space heaters, wore heavy layers, and started making piles of plates by type.
It took us three straight evenings, and over 12 hours total, to have the plates organized. We matched what pairs we could, subdivided the passenger plates into years, created a scrap bin, and slowly started to divide the lot between us. We resorted to our usual diplomatic “round robin draft” method, where the guy who wins a coin toss gets to pick a plate first, and then we alternate picks until the remaining plates become less exciting. Then, we start picking two at a time, then four, then six, then ten, until the pile is subdivided. We did draft picks for each type of non-passenger plate and for each year of passenger.
We still weren’t done. We had a mountain of truck plates to do, and we hadn’t the time to split up all the passenger plates. And seeing how we both have families and work full-time at our respective day-jobs, we had little choice but to pause until the following weekend.
The next Friday rolled around, and I showed up at Eric’s doorstep with more coffee. Our wives were beginning to get a little concerned at the amount of time we were taking with this—even on weekend evenings—and we were racing against the clock to get everything organized and split up. We spent about 7 hours that Friday and Saturday, splitting up the remaining passenger and truck plates, in the dim light of the closed garage, in the cold, with space heaters going, listening to either the Ottawa Senators game on the AM radio, or Randy’s Vinyl Tap on CBC.
It was after midnight on the Saturday-going-on-Sunday, two weeks after our sojourn to Toronto, when we finally had everything split up. All told, it took nearly 20 hours of work together, and uncounted hours of work separately, and that was simply to split things up. I’m now upgrading my collection and calling some YOM guys who have been looking for pairs for their classic cars—then I have to figure out exactly what I have to swap, and that alone is enough to keep me very busy until the Acton swap meet, which is over four months away. This will be a nice change of winter pace for me—I’ll actually have something plate-related to do instead of just watching eBay.