Advice to Beginning Collectors
By Michael Shackleford (#4979)
Before I got involved with ALPCA I was only trying to obtain one plate from all 50 states. I picked up a new state once in a while from a flea market or garage sale. Then one day I bumped into an ALPCA member at a junk yard who introduced me to a world of millions of plates. At first I was in plate heaven buying every kind of late of model plate I could afford. Eventually I realized I had a bigger collection of near worthless plates and a lot less money.
Don't make the same mistake I did by wantonly buying anything that looks good and is cheap. Recent model plates can vary in value from 1 dollar (Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia) to 10 dollars (Hawaii, Guam, Virgin Islands). I highly illadvise investing in anything made after 1969 unless it is an special type (handicapped, police, ham radio), a more challenging state (Alaska, Hawaii), or it has special interest to your (your home state). I'm not saying not to buy them for your own enjoyment but not to expect them to increase in value. Before you pick up your first newsletter or attend your first meet set goals for yourself. The three most popular goals especially for beginners are state runs, birth year runs, and type runs. A state year run is a set of plates, one per year, from a particular state. Be warned, the older the plate the more expensive they get. Older plates from some states are extremely expensive (Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Delaware, Alaska, Hawaii). If you plan to do a state run I would advise looking for somebody who wants to get rid of a complete or partial run from your state of interest. There is definitely an economy of scale with big purchases. After that try to fill in the gaps on a plate by plate basis.
A birth year run is something virtually every serious ALPCA collector has or is working on. The younger you are the easier and less expensive it will be. When you start out it will be easy so shop around. However the last ten states may be tough to find. Also, know what to look for. Some states for some years did not print a year on their plates nor offer validation stickers. Finally do not get stuck with truck or trailer plates. Collectors sneer at those for some reason. You can't go wrong with a basic passenger plate. Some states like California do not make it obvious what is a car and what is a truck plate. You will have to consult somebody who knows or buy a guidebook.
Type runs are also popular but can be tough and expensive. For example I have a handicapped plate from every state (except Hawaii). This was an easy quest to begin but was very costly to complete. Some states do not issue very many (Rhode Island, Florida, Georgia) and thus what few that are out there are tough to find. Other ideas are: motorcycle, ham radio, police, and dealer. Instead of trying to get a certain style from every state you can try to get every style from a certain state. Yet legislative and special issue plates can make this a difficult and never ending quest.
In general I have high respect for the majority of ALPCA members. To be honest I think a lot of people, especially the older members, get more out of the friendships they make through the club than the license plates themselves. Thus they would rather try to earn a reputation as a good honest collector than try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of everybody. However as the club is expanding there is a lot more profiteering as in the collecting of coins or baseball cards. For now the club is a good size, big enough to find what you are looking for but small enough to appreciate a new face.
To summarize, here are my ten commandments for beginning a license plate collection:
- Set a goal, in general don't buy plates you don't need.
- Shop around, prices will vary substantially.
- Ask about volume discounts.
- Know what kind of plate you are buying. Truck and trailer plates are not worth as much as passenger plates.
- Repainted plates may look nice but don't go for very high values. A lot of collectors don't like them and a new collector may not know about their unpopularity.
- Look for quality. An eyesore is always an eyesore.
- Take the advertised condition of a plate with a grain of salt. A plate in "good" condition can be a rusty extra hole ridden piece of junk. "Very good" seems to encompass a wide range of conditions.
- If you think a price is high, don't hesitate to bargain.
- A lot of collectors love to trade. It never hurts to have a good trading stock.
- Enjoy yourself! ALPCA is a great way to meet people and make friends.