Author's foreword: Last week, an unprecedented series of bidding wars erupted on social media for some key early Canadian plates. I was involved in two of them, but my bids were not successful. This post may seem to have been written in reaction to these events, but that's not so; "Platecoin" was already written in full, and had previously been loaded into the chamber for auto-posting. I have not made any changes to the article, aside from this foreword. For those who witnessed this bidding war, I will simply add this: I had known about the existence of these artifacts for a couple of decades, I had several times met with the late gentleman who owned them, and I wanted to take a run at a couple of favourites. I expected the bidding to be competitive, but not excessive. It soon became clear that no bid of mine, however high, would go uncontested by the apparent wealth of my lone remaining opponent. I pushed onward as hard as I could—not because I believed I would win—but to exemplify the drastic changes in valuation that have transformed this hobby.
I remember the very first time I paid money for a licence plate. It seems like yesterday— but it was back in the 1980s, like so many of my other dusty memories.
I was in grade nine, and my friend Billy had an unused Northwest Territories bear plate. It had red numbers, was dated 1977, and it had the letters PS stacked before the number. I didn’t know that meant “public service,” but I wasn’t fussy. I had a very small collection of Ontario plates to my name, and to me, a bear plate was a Holy Grail. I had only ever seen one maybe once before.
Billy didn’t care about plates the way I did. His ‘77 public service plate had been given to him by an aunt or grandmother who had visited Yellowknife. She bought it from one of the souvenir shops that sold surplus bear plates. Billy wasn’t especially attached to the plate, and he offered to sell it to me for fifty dollars. That was a lot of money in the 1980s, especially when minimum wage was under four bucks per hour. I couldn’t afford that. Billy eventually came down to $35, and I decided to bite. I hung that plate up the following summer at the family cottage with the rest of my collection. Then I hung it on the wall when I moved to London to go to UWO. I still own Billy's former plate, more than 30 years later.
I had no idea as to the collectible value of a bear plate when I was in grade nine. I joined ALPCA years later, and slowly developed a feel for valuation. A “good deal” for a plate like that would have been $20 Canadian. As it happened, the $35 that I’d paid Billy was fairly average. The year I joined ALPCA, I bought a first-issue 1970 bear for $50. I liked the blue colour, and $50 was a typical high-end value for a bear. As a new collector, I was pretty stoked to add it to my collection. It arrived around Christmastime, and I was just as thrilled with it as I was with my VHS tape of Apollo 13, or my CD of Blind Melon's 1995 album Soup. For several years, $50 was my personal record for the most money I had spent on a collectible licence plate. Everything else in my collection had cost me no more than $25, with everything pictured below (aside from the bear) at $15 or less. Of course, as a university student, I had no budget for expensive tastes.
As time went on, $20 for a bear plate didn’t happen anymore, but $35 to $40 was about right. The NWT has never been a populous jurisdiction, but many of its plates survive. The territorial government kept issuing replacement plates every year from 1970 to 1975, and then they switched to every two years from then until 1985. The plates of this era didn’t stay on the road long, and they were made of aluminum, which didn’t rust. These plates were overproduced in large quantities, so there were lots of mint leftovers. Thus, NWT bear plates are overrepresented in the collecting pool. They are by no means rare, due to their high production and survival rate, but everyone likes them. And in the 1990s, $40 or so was the typical price.
Two decades passed, and the value rose slowly, in line with inflation. $50 became the norm, which translates to between $35-$40 in US funds. In 2018, I was at the ALPCA Convention in Valley Forge, and I bought a nice graphic passenger bear with a slightly torn sticker for $30 US. That’s the last time I recall seeing a bear plate at such a nostalgically low price. Usually the passenger bears command a higher value, with commercial, public or trailer plates going for a little less. The seasonal bear plates, issued in the early 1970s, were generally a tier below passenger plates, with a sloppy line of spray paint around the edges and a die-stamped expiry date on the bottom. A poor man's bear, if you will.
Now, not even three years later, the value of a bear plate has doubled. People are selling them on social media, Deal-or-No-Deal style, for $80 a pop, and often more. These are the same surplus 1970s bear plates that Billy’s grandma brought back from Yellowknife. I can’t wrap my mind around how sharply the going value has jumped in such a short time.
I mused in this column a few months ago about the effect of social media on my hobby. There are many more people in the game now than there were even three years ago. And in the era of the COVID pandemic, I suppose there are lots of people out there who are bored, and not spending as much cash on other things, and finding more “play” money for collectibles. But it’s not just people buying plates from each other on social media: Auction houses have also embraced the online format. At one time, I had to drive to an estate auction to bid in person. Now, I can just sign in, make absentee bids, and rely on the majority of auction houses to ship my purchases to my door. But with that convenience comes a lot more competition from the bidding floor.
The “elephant in the room” for this hobby—at least to me—is valuation. I’ve talked to radio and newspaper reporters about collecting licence plates. They’ve dropped in on one of our swap meets, or approached me for a “human interest” piece. I talk about the hobby from the heart: I mention how I was ten years old when the bug first bit me. I recount how I tagged along with my dad to the junkyard for a precious 15 minutes of plate-hunting whilst he emptied renovation scraps from the back of his truck. I talk about ALPCA, and how it opened so many new doors. But inevitably, I’m asked, “What’s the most valuable plate in your collection?” I’ve never wanted to answer that question. Instead, I discuss one of my favourite gems from my collection, regardless of its value. I’ve always felt the hobby is about enjoyment, and not monetary valuation. For a time, my favourite plate was an unremarkable 1967 Ontario passenger plate. I bought it with pocket change from a thrift store when I was an awkward, long-haired closet nerd in high school. I didn't know what 1967 plates looked like prior to finding this one.
The hard truth is that the most valuable plate in my collection is now worth probably more than double what I had to pay for it a decade ago. When I acquired it, there were fewer people out there who collected, and keeping one’s “ear to the ground” took some effort and tenacity. But nowadays, so many more people have discovered the hobby, and anyone with a social media account or a bookmarked auction house can get an inside scoop. And subsequently, the bidding has gone bonkers. No one can tell who’s behind the crazy numbers, because there are so many new people to the hobby. Plates are no longer a curiosity for eccentric collectors; they’re a commodity to be traded in a market scenario. They're de rigeur among the collectible crowd. As a plate collector, I never figured my collection would be trendy... but here I am.
I look at my collection, and I love it. But in the end, they’re just rectangular ID markers for vehicles. They’ve served their purpose, and have been retired from the road. Why should an obsolete piece of 6x12 steel be worth $100 now, when it was just as useless 20 years ago when I bought it for $15? Outsiders to my hobby believed that I was pissing my money away at the time. Now, it seems, I’m unwittingly sitting on a gold mine.
I started my YOM business in 2003 as a way of making my hobby self-funding. I would buy low, put some time into restoring plates, and sell high. It takes work behind the scenes, but I enjoy it. I’m by no means “flipping” the plates I buy for twice the price a couple of days later. The vast majority of what I sell has undergone hours of TLC. But the days may be numbered when I can abide by my self-imposed “ceiling” for buying raw, restorable plates. Just take a look at some of these final auction prices, found online:
1936, fair: Priced at $130, best offer accepted, so guessing no lower than $90 paid.
1920, poor, with two missing chunks: $110
1929, fair: $130. That’s more than I get for a YOM-eligible RESTORED pair.
1926, fair: $125.
1913, “artworked to death”: $95
1947, good single: $63
Anyone who has met me at the Acton / Grimsby plate meets in past years is familiar with my practice of selling single plates like these for around $5 per pop. These are the ones that I can’t use for my business, that have too much rust to be top-shelf, and are just taking up space in my garage. I bring a crate and let folks have at it. They always sell, but I suppose I price them to move so I don’t have to bring ‘em home. But the demand has changed since the last time one of our swap meets was held (October 2019... pre-COVID times). I should be charging far more, based on what I see on eBay and social media.
It’s not all that way, though. There are still some deals to be found. While people are paying big bucks for rust, others paid less for gold… 1928 gold, that is.
1928, very good, with a killer number: $46.
Trouble is, I can’t find any more obvious examples of “good deals” at the values I’ve been accustomed to paying. There’s lot more rough stuff to find on eBay and the like, and those values have skyrocketed.
I’ve been collecting for nearly 40 years, and I’ve been actively hunting for plates as a member of ALPCA for over 25 of those years. I consider myself a pretty serious collector, although I've collected from my home province almost exclusively. Having such a narrow focus reaps rewards when it comes to looking thoroughly for hidden gems. Over my 25 years as an ALPCAn, I’ve assembled a collection of Ontario plates of which I’m truly proud. I’ve won several display awards at ALPCA Conventions, and I really do cherish the memories of those conventions.
But here’s the thing: I’ve never really considered my collection to be an investment. Sure, things go up in value with inflation, but I never spent money on my plates with the idea that they’d appreciate to the point where I could cash out. And now, suddenly, I’m sitting on the fruit of decades’ worth of collecting. Some of my higher-end items would sell for double what I paid, or more, in today’s climate.
Am I thinking of cashing out? Not really. I enjoy the hobby too much to do that. But the inflated values of today make it prohibitively expensive to collect some of the older, less-common types. I never got into collecting the small Ontario Public Carrier Vehicle (PCV) plates in the beginning. But once my passenger run was finished, I turned to PCVs as a new challenge. The older ones are pretty cool with their detailed legends through the 1930s. So I started to focus on PCVs, maybe three or four years ago.
Two of them were up for bids through an auction house. I watched the auctions closely-- I was in cahoots with someone else who needed them, but he would swap his downgraders to me afterward.
The bidding became pretty frantic for these two PCV plates. I was astounded to find out that the final bid values were in the $500 range... each. Of course, it only takes two bidders to raise the price. But this scenario has become repetitive. If I want a half-decent 1932 PCV plate, I’m going to have to pay into the hundreds. Do I want them that badly? Well, no. There aren’t a lot of the older ones around, so I concede that they're rare, but they’re low-profile and arcane. PCV plates are an auxiliary permit for a specific purpose. They’re not exactly sexy; they're a curiosity. Many platefolk might settle for just one of them in their collection… you know, just to have the type represented there. But not for $500. Most collectors I know have been much more concerned with mainstream types like passenger, motorcycle, or truck plates.
All that is to say that PCVs were never at the top of my priority list. And now, they’re apparently valued beyond my desire to collect them at all. And that leaves me with a half-run of PCV plates going back to the mid 1930s. Should I give up, and just cash them out?
There are a few other such types that are in the same boat: Take school vehicle plates (teacher here). Or public vehicle plates. I was never serious about older motorcycle plates; they were always too rich for my blood. I’ve collected them half-heartedly, but I’m unlikely to ever finish these type sets. Maybe I should cash them out? The time has never been better. Values were already on the rise; the pandemic lockdowns have sent them into the stratosphere.
At today’s prices, I could hold them for ransom and win easily, but I’d feel conflicted. Even though my runs of those types are not complete and never will be, I do enjoy looking at them. It would be very much like “me” to start pricing those plates, catch myself having too much fun going through them, and then just decide not to sell.
I don’t envy those collectors who are new to the scene. Values have never been higher. I see people offering quadruple for a run-of-the-mill 1960s passenger plate. And when I see that happen, I can’t help but wonder how well I’ve done, value-wise. I embarked on my journey as a serious collector back when plates weren't regarded as highly, and there were relatively few professional pickers out there. There’s no question that the plates in my collection have gone up in value. But I just enjoy them all the more. I don’t want to sell them. But should I? It’s a confusing crossroads to encounter, after all this time.