I was flipping through one of my hobby publications—one of the papers that comes to my door about licence plates, old cars, and other assorted old stuff that I like—and I noticed a large full-page ad for an upcoming estate auction.
Normally, an estate auction might have home furnishings, china, or maybe artwork. But when auction houses advertise in the rags that I read, they’re trying to attract the mantique crowd. Thus, the bottles, petroliana and hubcaps are all front-and-centre.
I inspected the auction ad and looked for licence plates, as I always do. I did find some, as I sometimes do. I decided that they were very relevant to my interests, which I occasionally do. And, since this was a new auction house to me, I registered as a new bidder, which I rarely do.
I looked at the bidding rules and terms, and was disappointed to find that I’d be paying substantially more than expected to win the auction:
There was a 15% buyer’s premium on all items. Rather than the estate paying the auctioneer for his services, that cost has been passed onto the buyer. However, online bidders have to pay an 18% online buyer’s premium instead.
13% sales tax is compounded on top of that.
So a $100 winning bid, made online, becomes $133 in the blink of an eye, before shipping.
On top of that, this particular auction house stipulates that winning online bids may not necessarily result in the item being sold to the winning bidder, due to the auctioneer having the final say, whatever that means. So the odds seemed like they were stacked against me from the start.
There were three plates that I actually wanted, and each one was buried in a lot of additional plates. It meant I’d have to buy three batches, of a dozen or two plates each, in order to win what I truly desired for my collection. Since I do restore and sell plates for the YOM market, I can sometimes elevate my bidding to compensate for job lot auctions, but that wasn’t really an option here. Even the useful YOM pairs were scattered sparsely amongst the lots. I’d be paying through the nose with little to no way to reduce the cost burden. I slept on it and came back to the auction the next day. Bidding wouldn’t open for about a week, but a sober second thought told me that I’d be bidding low. If even one other bidder knocked me out, I wouldn’t be mounting a comeback.
I had gone to the trouble to register as a bidder, which meant I could easily change my mind and place an absentee bid, but I decided against it. Two plates of the three that piqued my interest were “nice-to-haves,” but not really essential for my collection. The one plate I really wanted was a 1941 doctor plate that had been used as YOM plate and still had its 2005 expiry sticker. But it, unfortunately, was buried in a lot of high-quality 1940s plates, nearly none of which were YOMable. The bidding would probably go sky-high, and I wasn’t going to compete for just one plate, as much as I wished I could liberate it.
Auction day came, and I was too busy running family errands to check out the live portion, so I loaded up the results later. The results were shocking. This auction house had certainly done their bit for the estate—all lots sold, and all for scads of money. Let’s go over the results:
1911 porcelain pair: $800. These aren’t great plates. They’re a matching pair, yes, but there is missing enamel that has chipped and splintered away from both plates. The finish has worn away somewhat, robbing the plates of their original cobalt blue and leaving patches of tired gray. They are basically fillers: A collector who lands either of these plates will most certainly be looking to upgrade right away. For $800, I’d expect better condition. Presently, in the latter half of 2017, there is a new Facebook group for Ontario collectors, and several of them are chomping at the bit to get a 1911 porcelain plate. Demand seems to be spiking. I had one available for three years, having brought it to the Grimsby and Acton swap meets each time, before someone finally paid fair value for it. It's ironic that I finally sold the plate in early 2017, right before the Facebook group was created, and not long before the demand spiked.
Eight sample plates: $275. This is the lot that had the purple 1958 Ontario test plate. I suppose this might have been the most accessible buy of the auction for me, but I’d still be left with some samples which are either from easy jurisdictions, or have bad rust. Probably the best trader would be the Nebraska—not the easiest state—but the Ontario folks with whom I trade don’t really care about older US samples, and won’t want to pay that much for it.
Fifteen 1940s plates with the 41 doctor: $800. That’s north of $53 per plate, before any of the add-on costs. Figure an 18% online buyer’s premium and 13% tax, and that inflates to $1066.72, or $71 per plate. There’s just no logic to it; I can’t imagine an antique dealer would have gone this high. My high bid would have been less than half that, bearing in mind the one YOMable pair and selling the decent singles and pairs at the next Acton meet for maybe $10 each, and saving the doctor plate for myself.
Twenty-five 1950s plates: $850. The only one I really wanted here was the sweet 1950 single, numbered 111V1, since full repeats are very much “my thing.” There was only YOMable item in this lot as well, but it was easy year. The rest of these are essentially wall-hangers, and a displayable example has a value of maybe $7 to $10 in my trade box… or less if it has dents or rust. The cost per plate here is $34, and after the post-auction add-ons, that goes up to $45. No thanks.
Even the cheapies were sky-high. A batch of twenty-five boring 1970s truck quarterly plates went for $100… $4 per plate before add-ons. I can barely give these away. Two batches of mixed 1970s passenger / dealer plates went for a few bucks per plate, which is OK if you’re actively collecting them, but there were some very tired plates in these lots. One nice set of natural 1975 passengers did catch my attention: JUP-157. Sort of like an abbreviated nickname, like J-Lo or A-Rod. That lot did go for probably the most reasonable amount of all the plates in this auction, but I didn’t have the appetite to pay the add-ons and then shipping across Ontario for a heavy box of nearly 30 plates.
I like to say that plate collecting isn’t a lucrative hobby, unless you target the really rare, old, or high-quality stuff. But most of these plates don’t fall into those categories. A nice 1948 plate? I have one in my trade box for $7. A nice set of 1962 plates? Take the set for $10. A near-mint quarterly plate? I’ll save it as a freebie for a kid who wanders into the Acton meet next spring. So many prospectors are dabbling in collectibles these days… Antiques Roadshow started it, but now we have “Shitty Locker Wars,” “Canadian NosePickers,” and “Pwned Stars” on TV, where everyone believes that every piece of junk is worth a hundred bucks. And it just ain’t so.