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Collecting what most people throw away

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

License Plates – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Old license plates work well for patching knotholes in fences and barn walls. They’re also collectibles for the 8,500 members of the American License Plate Collectors Association.

One of them is Bill Zimmerman of Colorado Springs, who has “five or six hundred” license plates on the interior walls and rafters of his garage.

Most collectors, he said, “try to make some kind of set” — for instance, he has one from each of the 50 states for the year he was born, 1960.

Others go for age, trying to get one from the first year that each state issued a license plate. Or for variety; in Colorado, to get one of each kind of passenger plate for a given year. Or maybe one from each county for a given year. “You make your own decision about what you want to collect,” he said.

Why collect license plates? For about the same reason that people collect coins or stamps. “Everybody collects something,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just human nature, and some of us are fascinated by license plates.”

His interest began in 1977, when his family was moving from Michigan to Colorado. “My dad had a few old plates nailed up in the garage,” he recalls, “and when we were packing to move, I really wanted to take those plates.”

On the drive to Colorado, “a lot of states still had their special bicentennial tags then, and I started noticing them on the road.” His interest turned into a collection — and now he has 1976 bicentennial plates from all 50 states.

Collectors sometimes notice old plates nailed to a fence while out on a Sunday ride, but more typically, license plates show up in antique stores, salvage yards, garage sales, flea markets, estate auctions, and in the hands of generous friends who have just cleaned a shed or cellar. They’re then traded and sold among collectors via their newsletters, on the Internet, or at special swap meets.

Like coins, old plates are rated by condition, ranging from “poor” through “good” and “excellent” to “mint,” and scarcity (usually a function of age) also determines their prices. A porcelain Colorado plate from 1913, the first year plates were issued, could command $600 in good condition, Zimmerman said.

More typically, “they go from $1 to $5. It’s not an expensive hobby — unless you’re looking for really rare and old plates, you can build a collection for not a whole lot of money.”

Colorado members of the ALPCA hold two swap meets each year. “People set up tables and buy, sell, and trade plates, and usually there’s other small auto-related stuff,” Zimmerman said. “We talk about our hobby, try to complete our collections, and get ideas for new collections.”

The next such gathering runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 6, at the Doubletree World Arena Hotel in Colorado Springs, just off I-25 on the south side of the city.

The ALPCA offers a fine website at, and you can write to ALPCA, 7365 Main St. #214, Stratford CN 06614-1300.