When collecting quantities of plates, it’s often about being first on the scene and acting quickly before the runner-up has a chance to arrive, especially in this age of social media. But sometimes, the old-fashioned approach still works: Tenacity and patience.
How does one go about expressing interest when something may or may not be for sale? Come on too strong, and the seller may react with alarm. Lay low, and the seller may not remember that you’re interested when the time comes. It can be a delicate tightrope walk to avoid those outcomes. And that’s where this story begins.
Chapter 1 - Hide and Seek
“Arnold” (not his real name) is a well-known car enthusiast and plate collector from eastern Ontario. He’s about 90 and has been slowing down on his collectible-related activities in the past few years. I first saw him long ago when he was selling plates at the Stirling Automotive Flea Market, back when the AACA was still organizing the show. I didn’t have a name for him at the time… he was just a face. He was a slim guy with thick glasses, and spoke with the almost Irish twang that is prevalent in many rural communities in the Ottawa Valley. He was in the middle of the Stirling sales field and had boxed himself within a bunch of long flat tables, where he displayed his plates for sale. At the time, I didn’t have a 1944 trailer plate. I needed one to fill just one hole of several that were in my displayable Ontario collection. He had one, all right... but the price was around $40. That was pretty high for those times—It was two decades ago, and I was still working an entry-level job where every dollar spent on plates was a dollar lost. I decided not to buy the 1944 at that time.
The following year, I was building a display board to show off my Ontario passenger run for the first time at an upcoming ALPCA convention. I had pretty much everything I needed, except a 1944 trailer plate to use as a placeholder for the rare and expensive 1944 windshield decal that I didn’t own. I found myself in Stirling once again, and vending there was the same white-haired man as last year, selling plates laid flat on his tables. He had the same 1944 trailer for sale. However, it was priced at $50 instead of the $40 from the previous time I saw him. Money was still tight, but I had scrimped and saved. I was nonplussed with the ten-dollar jump in the price, but Arnold was shrewd and not willing to backpedal. I bit the bullet and bought my first-ever 1944 Ontario plate. It was a nice one—definitely not to be a weak link in my display. I went on to win first prize in my ALPCA display category that year.
Arnold stopped coming to Stirling a few years after I began attending it habitually. He did vend in Lombardy, at a small car show held each spring. I’ve been to that Lombardy show a couple of times, but it seems to get smaller each year, and I’ve never once made a find there because I don’t arrive at the crack of dawn. Eric Vettoretti has gone to Lombardy in more recent years, and has struck up conversations with Arnold about plates, and collections. Arnold was eager to boast about the wealth of plates he had back home, and of course, Eric expressed interest in making an offer, should Arnold ever decide to sell. Arnold’s more junior family members seem to have no interest in plates, and apparently they have encouraged him to sell off as he slows down. But word on the country road was that Arnold didn’t want to sell.
Well, Arnold didn’t show up to Lombardy in the spring of 2019. Eric made a call to Arnold’s son, and inquired about Arnold’s well-being. Turns out he was fine… just getting older, and not up to carrying heavy bins of plates to the next county. Eric mentioned that he was still open to buying Arnold out... although exactly what Arnold did have was unclear. He claimed to have a beautiful 1952 dealer plate, and Ontario passenger plates going back to “the beginning”, plus an indeterminate amount of trade stock.
Arnold had been egged on by his family, and was just comfortable enough with Eric to talk business. They made arrangements to meet at Arnold’s house on a Tuesday in June. If the scope of Arnold’s collection was as large as predicted, it would make the most sense if Eric and I collaborated on it behind the scenes, but we didn’t tell Arnold that. I “tagged along” and posed as Eric’s brother-in-law. He’d do all the talking, and I’d admire the collection and take the odd picture.
We arrived at the house in the late morning. Arnold was there to greet us. He made idle chatter about the weather before he opened the garage and gave us our first look. It was a disappointment... There wasn’t much to look at.
The trade stock, which was worth the most to us for its YOM potential, wasn’t visible. Arnold told us that he wanted us to look at his Ontario run first. Apparently, he wanted to see if we were reasonable enough to strike a deal for the Ontario run, and then if we were, move on to negotiating for the trade stock.
I don’t like that approach. The last time that happened, we were in Toronto, negotiating to purchase a part of the Wayne Plunkett collection. We had brought good money, and were ready to see what was available, but much time was wasted in navigating all the seller’s please-look-at-this-first trapdoors. Anyway, Eric and I talked to Arnold as we looked at his Ontario run. I snapped pictures of the plates discreetly so we could take a few minutes to ourselves if we needed to figure out a value.
Arnold’s Ontario run, although it was mostly in pairs, was less substantial than advertised. The plates were neatly hung in place along the upper wall. We knew beforehand that the super-rare leather first-issue was represented with a replica. We were more interested in the earliest authentic items: His rubber plates. Arnold did have a pair of circa-1906 rubber plates, in good condition, mounted on the wall. However, the space to the right of them—where the 1910 white-bar rubbers should have been—was mysteriously occupied by a 2003 Nunavut bear plate, hung haphazardly from a single nail. The condition of the remaining early Ontario plates was wanting. Arnold's single 1911 porcelain was badly chipped, and certainly an unworthy trophy to someone who talked the talk as he did. The 1912 and 1913 tin pairs were recent repaints. The '14 and '15 tin pairs were original, but they were dark and brown with oxidation. The '16 was mildly better, but it was only a single. The rest of the flat years, from 1917 to 1920, all had problems, ranging from minor to substantial.
Going into the embossed years, 1921 was so-so, with '22 through '24 being pretty good. Strangely, 1925 was missing, with a random booster plate hanging in its spot, haphazardly, from one nail. His '26 and '27 were so-so, and his '28 was heavily rusted. 1929 through 1931 were all missing, with either uninteresting filler plates or replicas hanging in their place. Why were so many missing? These are not difficult years for a collector with decades of experience.
Moving on, I noticed that his 1946 plate, of all things, was missing. He had a crummy Northwest Territories bear dangling in its place, again, from one nail. But why would that be? 1946 isn't a hard year to find. It was then that I noticed that there was a rectangular discolouration on the wall behind the crummy bear plate, as if a rectangular plate had been hanging there for years, preventing the underlying wall paint from getting dirty. Whatever was there could have been removed recently. As in, perhaps, a day ago? I looked further along the wall, to a spot where a standard-sized 1952 plate might have been hanging. I saw yet another NWT bear, dangling from one nail.
It seemed that Arnold wasn’t playing straight with us. He had clearly taken the cream of the crop off the wall and replaced it with same-year trade stock, and if that wasn’t available, he just hung some random item in its place. Of course the bears would be hanging from one nail—their bolt slots didn’t fit the nails that Arnold had used to hang the older plates we came to see. We weren’t looking at his run. Not the early half of it, at any rate.
While we were there, I noticed that there were a bunch of wooden grape crates piled on the other side of the garage, inaccessible among a pile of other bulky items. It looked like those crates might contain the trade stock that Arnold didn’t yet want us to see. I snapped a picture of them. Those trader crates were probably the source of half the plates we were seeing hanging on the wall.
Eric and I played nice, and Arnold mentioned the ballpark figure for which he expected to sell the run. We said we’d have to do some private calculating for a half hour or so. Arnold said that was fine, and to come back when we were ready. So Eric and I drove into town for a coffee, and compared our notes.
Eric had deduced, just as quickly as I, that we were being had. There was just too much filler for this to be a plausible collection from someone as experienced and shrewd as Arnold. The only plates worth anything substantial would be the rubber pair, but even so, the value of the collection wouldn’t approach the amount that he was looking to get.
Arnold had been encouraged by his family to consider selling, and it was only because of Eric’s cordial dialogue with them that we’d gotten in the door in the first place. Rather than just walk away in a huff, I suggested that we gamble to save face: Offer Arnold something high enough not to be viewed on his end as an insult, but low enough that he would certainly decline. That way, we could agree to disagree without pissing him off. We’d play nice, leave, and then eventually deal with his family, who seem to be more straight-forward.
We did exactly that. We countered at two-thirds of Arnold's ballpark figure (which was still more than the value of the plates we saw on the wall). Arnold declined, just as we had predicted. We parted cordially, and Eric left Arnold with a business card.
As for Eric and I... we had both taken the day off, and had come prepared to negotiate in good faith, only to have him play games with us. All told, our visit with him had taken an hour. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, so we threw a dart, chose a nearby town, and went hunting for plates. We tried to laugh it off and make the most of it.
Chapter 2 - Seek and Ye Shall Find
Two years later, Eric received a phone call from Arnold’s son, who found the business card that Eric had left behind two years prior. Apparently, Arnold’s health had declined, and he had moved into a nursing home. He was no longer able to manage his own affairs, and may not have even remembered much about his plates. The house would soon be changing hands, and the time had come to clear out Arnold’s belongings, including his plates.
The son realized that this would be a sizable task. At this point, Eric introduced me as a full buying partner, as opposed to using the “brother-in-law” approach that we had taken two years earlier to keep Arnold from feeling alarmed. Our polite-but-firm approach was that we were interested in a “one-and-done” transaction, as opposed to making repeat visits to buy chunks at a time. We had already made one fruitless trip out to Arnold’s country home. We would make a second trip, but not a third.
We agreed on a date. Eric and I met up at the local coffee shop in town so that we could arrive at the house together. We came well-armed with cash. Exactly how much we would spend depended entirely on whether we would be allowed to flip through the crates, and what we would find. We arrived at the house, and we were pleased to find the garage door open, with a few dozen wooden crates laid out. The revered trade boxes, at last! As for the Ontario passenger run, which Arnold had showed us two years before, the son indicated that he wanted to keep those for himself for the sentimental value. That suited us just fine, as the trade stock was what we really wanted to sink our teeth into.
I stayed as cool as I could. But with the pandemic, this was the first time I had been able to flip through boxes of plates in a long time. It felt a bit like Christmas morning. The plates were somewhat organized, with pairs already matched, which made our mental math easier. Most of the plates were Ontario passengers, with some trucks, and a couple of out-of-province boxes. Conditions ranged from very good to fair, and all of the lower-end items were restorable. There were lots of upgraders for my collection of truck plates. It took us a bit more than half an hour to give each box a cursory look.
Most years were well-represented from 1931 and up, with a few earlier odds and sods. Strangely enough, there was nothing of note from 1927-1930. Inasmuch as we really wanted 1951, we were a little bummed to find that year was largely absent. Not that the collection was in any way a disappointment; there would be enough to keep each of us busy for weeks, even after dividing the lot between ourselves.
A large collection such as this called for large-scale math, as opposed to nickel-and-diming based on rarity or vehicle type. There was enough quality to counterbalance the less-interesting plates. Each box was roughly the same size. We made an estimate of the number of plates in each box, and figured out an average per-box value. Then we multiplied that value by the number of boxes (45), to come up with our offer. Arnold’s son was pleasantly surprised; he expected us to come up with a much lower figure than we proposed, followed by haggling.
We struck a deal, then and there, for all 45 crates of the trade stock. It was a good thing that we‘d driven separately. Without two vehicles, we’d have needed to make a second trip, or rent a trailer. I recall ten years ago, when we bought our part of the Plunkett collection in Toronto, we stacked a couple of large plastic storage bins in the trunk of Eric’s car, and spread the rest of the plates throughout the various nooks and crannies (without boxes, as they wouldn’t fit). Back then, we had plates squirreled under the folded rear seats, in the foot wells, and crammed under the front seats. It was crazy. This time, buying Arnold’s traders, we had two cars, so loading the plates was a simple matter of just stacking the crates.
We drove in the direction of home for about five minutes before finding a baseball diamond with an empty parking lot, so we got out and marveled at how our tenacity and patience over the years had actually paid off. We mused at how long we’d been buying from Arnold as a vendor, the number of base-touches Eric had made with the family, and the failed trip from two years earlier. Somehow, it added up to two cars full of plates after making a fair and straightforward offer.
The next few weeks would involve cataloguing what we had, swapping out downgraders for upgraders in our collections, and slowly dividing the spoils. It’s the kind of job that might sound laborious to the uninitiated, but for longtime plate geeks like us, there’s no better way to spend a summer evening: Out in the garage, beer in hand, listening to music (unless a good game is on the radio), and figuring out which plates you’ll keep. We had about 2000 plates between us that needed to be sorted. It was going to take a while yet.
Chapter 3 - Round Robin
The plates we bought would have various destinations: Some would be added to our own respective collections, some would serve as raw stock for our separate YOM businesses, some would make for excellent traders at future swap meets, and some would be craft-grade plates that just needed to go to an artist.
The first step was for each guy to drive home and enter the plates into a shared spreadsheet. That way, we’d have a complete picture of what we bought. We had already taken a fast look through each box while we were at Arnold’s, but we had to catalogue them properly. That took a couple of days.
The next task was the most fun part: Upgrading our collections. If there’s one plate that both fellas want, we often rely on a coin toss, with a “consolation pick” available to the guy who doesn’t win. Eric is further along in his truck collection than I, so I was able to add about a dozen missing pieces to my truck run without having to pull out a coin. I also found a few more recent passenger upgrades for my “natural sticker” run, as well as a couple of quarterly trailers. There were a few doctor plates to be had, as well as a few rare foreign embassy staff plates.
With our collection upgrades having been taken care of, the next step was to check pairs for Year of Manufacture eligibility. This was the most time-consuming part, since it involved about 30 strategic phone calls to Service Ontario in order to run numbers. Each call was prefaced with anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes of waiting on hold before we could speak to a human being. The telephone agents came to recognize us over the next three weeks as we placed the necessary calls.
Finally, our calls were finished, having checked hundreds of pairs of plates. It’s not a high success rate… about 10% can be used for our YOM business purposes, but with the sheer volume of pairs that we had, our calls were quite worthwhile. With that phase of the job completed, we could turn to dividing the lot for good.
When Eric and I collaborate on large batches of plates, we organize them into different categories: Pairs versus singles, passenger versus non-passenger, YOM versus non-YOM, vintage versus modern, and so on. It makes for simpler thinking during our “round robin” stage.
We flip a coin, with the winner taking the first pick. Then, we alternate picks. Eventually, the plates on the garage floor disappear. Sometimes, the picking is easy. Sometimes, it can be agonizing… If there are two clear front-runners, one has to choose carefully, knowing that the other one will be picked immediately thereafter. I’m notorious for taking too long to decide.
As the round robin progresses, the plates remaining on the floor get less and less exciting. Soon enough, we’re picking plates with the least damage, rather than the ones that we like the best. But that’s all part of the fun. With the sheer volume that we had to haul around, I found myself starting out with a beer to relax, then a Coke for the caffeine, and finally some Gatorade because of all the heavy lifting on a 28-degree evening. My back muscles barked at me when it was time to call it a night.
Eric and I spent three evenings conducting about ten round robins in total. His garage is much larger than mine, so it’s the ideal place. For a collector, it’s very much a mind-blowing experience to stand back and see over 200 plates laid out in rows all over the floor, especially if they’re all from the same era. We had a staggering number of 1957, 1959 and 1960 plates to arrange. We had to leave small “tightrope” spaces so we could walk around and avoid trampling the plates while we made our picks. This was the greatest volume that we had ever sorted; not even our share of the Wayne Plunkett collection contained this many plates. As time wore on through our third evening, we made a push to finish: We changed our round robin format so that each guy chose two pairs instead of one, and we kept at it until almost 1 am. It was a little anticlimactic, because the last plates we did were the birdhouse-grade ‘71s and ‘72s… which aren’t all that exciting, even when they’re in nice shape.
Will there be traders left over? There certainly will be! But what they’ll be, and when they’ll be available, is yet to be determined. Right now, my own garage—much more compact than Eric’s—is stuffed with disorganized crates from our picks. Now that I know what’s actually mine, I can sit down, through yet another evening or two in a garage, and figure it all out. Selling plates online is definitely an option, but I’d still like to keep some of them until the 2022 Acton meet, so I can support that event with many boxes of traders. So, while the big tasks are now finished, there’s still lots to do. And that’s a nice problem to have when you’re a plate geek.