One Saturday in early May, a gentleman from southwestern Ontario, whom I have never met, went to an estate auction. The man—a collector of vintage firearms and antiques—obtained a copy of the auctioneer’s pamphlet, registered as a bidder, and waited for the auction to begin.
Soon enough, a box was opened and an object was pulled out to be sold. It was a curious object, made of very old leather. It had been warped into a convex shape over time, but the surface leather was smooth and glossy. It may have been varnished at one point, with the effect of preserving the finish and colour of the leather. The object was in the shape of a shield. It had two metal hanging rings attached to leather loops that protruded from the top edge. The face of the object bore three ornate cast aluminum numerals, which had been riveted to the leather on the reverse side. Below the numerals was an oval-shaped emblem, featuring the Ontario provincial coat-of-arms, also made of aluminum and riveted to the leather. The leather was worn in a few spots. The auctioneer speculated that the object had, at one time, been a component of a horse harness. Such harnesses are known to feature leather straps with brass or aluminum embellishments.
The bidding opened. The gentleman, who waited patiently in the audience, had never seen an object like this before and did not recognize it. However, his instincts, honed by years of collecting antiques, told him that this object was probably more than a simple equestrian embellishment. He had a good feeling about the object, and he joined in the bidding. After a short time, the gentleman stood alone in the crowd with a two-figure bid. After fair warning, the object was declared sold.
The man made his way home. He suspected that his new treasure might be a government permit of some kind. He telephoned a member of his extended family, who was himself a collector of license plates and general automobilia. Upon describing the object, they agreed to meet.
Bill Thoman arrived promptly to see the object for himself. The description of the object certainly sounded similar to a first-issue Ontario license plate, and would have been produced between 1903 and 1905. But they’re rare enough that some people have fashioned their own reproductions out of leather and cast-aluminum numbers available at specialty hardware shops. Bill knew that the odds of finding a real leather plate--unrecognized and unadvertised-- were remote. Such a plate would have no business being unknown in southwestern Ontario, a region that is the de facto heart of Canada’s automotive heritage. The plate looked authentic to Bill, but he still wasn’t sure. He took some photographs and sent them to a person who he knew would not only be interested, but might have enough information to determine its authenticity. There may have been a few people Bill knew who fit that description, but the person he called was me.
I talked with Bill, and he described the plate carefully. He had the dimensions measured, too—5 ½ inches high at its tallest point, and 7 ¾ inches across at its widest point. He sent his photographs as well. One look told me that this was probably the real deal—the gentleman had indeed scored an actual leather plate, of which there are only about a dozen known to survive.
After getting off the phone with Bill, I consulted my own “archive” of leather information, and I was independently able to authenticate the plate further: Years ago at a swap meet, I bought a “fake leather kit” from a collector who had seen and studied a leather plate, so he could try to fashion his own as a placeholder in his collection. I had since assembled the fake plate and donated to the ALPCA fake plate collection, but the kit also included a photograph of the real plate he had studied, as well as a very carefully-traced outline of the shield shape, for use in cutting the correct size and shape of the shield in the creation of the fake. The overall curvature of the shape--and the dimensions of the widest and tallest points-- were exactly the same between the drawn outline and the plate in Bill's photos.
Leather plate number 568 was sold on eBay within the past year, formerly the property of a prominent collector, and known to be authentic. I’m sure many of my regular readers watched that auction with great interest. I downloaded and saved the highest-resolution pictures that I could find. As fortune would have it, the numbers on this newly-discovered plate were 508. A close side-by-side examination of the numerals 5 and 8 clearly showed that every curve and nuance was identical to the smallest detail. Ditto with the engraved provincial seal at the bottom.
Conclusion—the gentleman had just made the score of the century.
Bill had given me the gentleman’s contact information, and I gave him a call and introduced myself. Of course, I was trying not to froth at the mouth during the entire conversation, but I did confirm to him that it was a very rare first-issue leather Ontario license plate, and I detailed how I was able to come to that conclusion. My primary goal was to inform him as much as possible.
Of course, with the gentleman not being specifically an automobilia collector, the conversation soon turned to possible value. With so few of these plates in existence, it’s impossible to put an accurate number on them, and values will swing wildly. I used my previous encounter with a leather plate as my basis. About four years ago, a person had another leather plate available, and he started making the rounds and soliciting offers. I made an offer, and a serious one at that—but I didn’t hear from him again, and it wasn’t until five months had passed when he popped out of the woodwork to break the silence and announce that my offer was accepted. The trouble was, I had already decided to buy Greta, my ’71 Volkswagen, so that ship had sailed. In any event, I used my accepted offer as a basis for a value for the number 508 plate that the gentleman and I were discussing.
I admitted that I was keenly interested in acquiring a leather plate, but I acknowledged that as he had only owned the plate for two days, he may want to enjoy it for a while, or explore some options. I provided my contact info to him in case he decided to explore a deal with me as an option.
A couple of days later, the gentleman gave me a call and thanked me once again for the information that I had provided. The gentleman appreciated my honesty, my dedication to plates, and the fact that I was a dad, so he agreed to sell the plate to me for the amount that I had specified in our earlier conversation. Having such a significant plate shipped was out of the question—There was no way I would entrust this plate to the Post or a courier.
How the hell I was going to pick this plate up, I didn’t know—he and I were located at opposite ends of Ontario, and I wasn’t in a position at the time to make a long road trip. I decided to call Bill again. I knew that he and his lovely wife Lynda frequently travelled, and I wondered if their travels might bring them close enough that I could meet them. As luck would have it, they were planning a visit to see their granddaughters in the Kingston area, in late July. I asked Bill if he would be willing to pick the plate up for me, and then bring it to Kingston—I could easily come down to retrieve the plate. He and Lynda graciously agreed to help.
I called my leather plate counterpart again and asked him to pass the plate off to Bill. He agreed. He called Bill, who met him to take custody of the plate on my behalf. Bill kept it safely for three weeks—in some ways, three of the longest weeks I’ve ever spent crossing days off the calendar.
The day finally came, and I hopped into the car with some good music and a few snacks for the drive to Kingston. I had a bit of time to spare, so I took a back route in the form of some county roads. I went through Murphy’s Point provincial park and almost hit a buck, and I crossed the Rideau Canal waterway a couple of times on some swing and lift bridges. The roads undulated in some spots, as if I was driving on a rollercoaster, or some sort of enormous clamshell. Eventually, the land flattened as I approached the Kingston area.
Bill and Lynda were outside when I pulled up. I greeted them as well as their son, his wife and their two daughters. Bill led me into the kitchen where he reached up to the top cupboard and pulled down a small bundle of light blue tissue paper, wrapped neatly with elastic bands. I had been waiting nearly three months for this moment. I unwrapped the plate and folded the paper back to reveal the leather shield. It was nothing short of marvelous—the pictures had indeed been accurate. There it was, with its worn corner, the centre numeral zero reinforced with wire, its provincial insignia with the correct engraved font, and rivets through the back. It was lighter than I imagined when I picked it up; I expected it to feel more substantial in my hands. However, given that it was over a century old, there would clearly be no moisture left in the leather. That, combined with the aluminum of the number, meant that my real lather plate, although considered a heavyweight within the boundaries of a collection, was physically anything but.
Bill and Lynda took a couple of pictures of me with the plate. I felt nervous holding it. What would happen if I dropped it? What if a drink was spilled on it? I did my best to relax. There are other collectors who have been looking for one for longer than I’ve been alive. Do I deserve it? Can I keep from spilling drinks on it? I suppose these questions are my signal that the novelty hasn’t worn off yet.
I’d love to find some information about the plate and others like it—rumour has it that the old registration books are in a collection somewhere—and I’d love to learn the city and date of issue, and even the registrant’s name, if I can. Trouble is, I have no idea where to look. Honestly, though, it’s a conundrum I’m lucky to have. I’m also lucky to have friends in Bill and Lynda Thoman—they have my permanent gratitude.