A license to collect: The peculiar joy of number plates

Israeli license plate collectors, displaying their favorite examples from Jordan, Russia, Israel and Swaziland, gather at the Ness Ziona home of Yoav Katz, far right, to talk shop. (Larry Luxner)
Israeli license plate collectors, displaying their favorite examples from Jordan, Russia, Israel and Swaziland, gather at the Ness Ziona home of Yoav Katz, far right, to talk shop. (Larry Luxner)

Yan Nirenberg of Lod has been collecting license plates from the age of 6 — when his parents bought their first car back in Soviet-era Lithuania.

“We moved to Israel when I was 11, and I always remember myself paying attention to license plates around me, trying to figure out the hidden messages behind them,” he said. Years later, he said, “I started photographing beautiful numeric combinations, and it didn’t take long before I found my first license plate on the side of the road.”

Since 2010, Nirenberg, a technical manager at a media company in Ramat Gan, has acquired 40 such “roadkills” — but his real passion is for plates from war zones such as Iraq and Somaliland.

Collectors from various countries display their favorite license plates along with a custom-made Israeli-Dutch “friendship flag” during a May 2018 plate meet in Großolbersdorf, Germany. (Larry Luxner)

Yoav Katz also began collecting plates at the age of 11. His first — “BNB-365” — was a red-and-white plate acquired during a family trip to Belgium. Through trading with other plate aficionados and buying on eBay, the Katz collection has grown to over 800 examples, most of them nailed to the walls of his bedroom in Ness Ziona.

Other local enthusiasts range from Ido Daniel, a 19-year-old soldier from Tel Mond, to Dr. Nimrod Rahamimov, head of the orthopedics department at Galilee Medical Center. Yet as thrilling as it is, no more than a dozen of Israel’s 8.8 million inhabitants actually collect license plates — an obscure hobby that often elicits yawns from non-collectors.

Unlike philatelists (people who save stamps), the study of license plates is so arcane there isn’t even a noun for those who engage in it. But thanks to Facebook and eBay, these guys — and yes, they’re almost always males — can link up with each other far more easily than in the old days.

Motorcycle, bicycle and tractor plates from the author’s private collection include examples from Arizona to Argentina, from Mexico to the Maldives — and many jurisdictions in between. (Larry Luxner)

Dino Maricic, administrator of the License Plate Collectors (LPC) group on Facebook, said that when he took over the site in October 2011, it had around 50 members. At last count, LPC boasts 7,643 members — with no less than 15 sign-up requests flooding his inbox every day.

“We’re like one big family,” said Maricic, a Croatian government inspector who lives in Zadar, a town on the Adriatic Sea. It’s true; when the father of one of the group’s most active members died earlier this month in Spain, other collectors auctioned off nearly $300 worth of prized plates to help finance his trip from Germany to attend the funeral.

Within the collecting world, there’s a great deal of specialization; some people collect only porcelain enamel plates, others just plates issued by their country of residence. One LPC member in California seeks out white-on-red plates, while a Canadian collector from Ontario wants plates containing the numbers “420” — code for marijuana.

Special license plates issued during the 1950s to U.S. troops stationed in West Germany are displayed at a vendor’s table during a May 2018 collectors’ convention in Großolbersdorf. (Larry Luxner)

Where did they originate?

Plates are usually manufactured from tin or aluminum, but they can also be made out of plastic, fiberglass, wood or even leather. No one really knows how license plates began, though the reference book of all serious hobbyists, the 800-page Registration Plates of the World, says the German state of Baden began issuing plates on a regular basis in 1896, and that Luxembourg was reported to have issued the number “1” to a Benz the year before.

The pioneer of license plates in the United States was Massachusetts, which issued its first official plate in 1903 — more than half a century before the birth of the US-based Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA), the largest club of its kind in the world.

From all accounts, the first country in the Middle East to require license plates was Egypt. A photo in the October 1914 issue of Ford Times magazine shows a Model T parked in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza sporting a red, white and black number tag made out of porcelain.

Standing: Walter Punzmann, Jan-Willem Pasman, Markus Tesar, Žare Veršnik, Daniel Hediger and Damijana Veršnik. Seated: Jeroen Janssen, Kevin McCarthy and Dino Maricic. All are members of LPC and all were at the May 2018 plate meet in Großolbersdorf, Germany. (Larry Luxner)

In the ensuing years, all Arab countries began mandating license plates, though not all the plates were issued by specific governments. During the 1950s and ‘60s, for example, the Arabian-American Oil Company pressed its own cast-aluminum plates for use in the oilfields of Saudi Arabia.

Israeli plates from the British Mandate era through the first few years of independence are extremely rare — especially the regional issues that bore the letters “ת” for Tel Aviv, “ים” for Jerusalem and “כ” for Haifa and the Carmel. So are the old five- and six-digit orange and later yellow plates issued from 1955 to 1980, when Israel’s standard seven-digit yellow rectangular plates came into being.

Authorities added the blue Star of David IL “euroband” flag in 1999, as well as an eighth digit effective June 1, 2017. With 300,000 new vehicles registered in Israel every year, the additional digit was necessary to avoid running out of numbers.

Collage of Arab/Middle East license plates from the author’s collection. Top row: Israel, Tunisia, West Bank (ב-Bethelehem-Israeli administration); Egypt. 2nd row: Qatar, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia. 3rd row: UAE (Sharjah), Libya, Bahrain, Syria (passenger), Syria (motorcycle), West Bank (ב-Bethlehem-Israeli administration). 4th row: Israel (צ-military); Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Maldives (motorcycle), Mauritania. 5th row: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Oman, Djibouti, UAE (Abu Dhabi), Eritrea. Bottom row: Iraq (military), Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. (Larry Luxner)

The colorful plates seen on roads across the 50 U.S. states and Canada are made from cheap, lightweight tin, often by prisoners who have little choice in the matter. Throughout the Middle East, however, plates are painstakingly hammered out by skilled craftsmen working at their own sign shops. Many plates — particularly those from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria — are highly sought after for their raised lettering and unusually heavy cast-aluminum construction.

Until 1994, the West Bank and Gaza Strip used Israeli government-issued plates which, in addition to a registration number also contained one of 10 Hebrew letters denoting the district: the most common were “ע” for Gaza, “ב” for Bethlehem, “ח” for Hebron, “שׁ” for Nablus and “ר” for Ramallah. That made it easy to distinguish those black-on-blue plates from the black-on-yellow plates used in Israel proper.

Current Palestinian plates are green on white, with the letter “P” on the right side. Fans of the popular TV action series “Fauda” will notice the show’s opening sequence, which features Jewish undercover agents switching the plates on their van from Israeli to Palestinian ones to avoid detection as they attempt to infiltrate Hamas.

The Internationales Museum für Nummernschilder, a license plate museum, occupies an old industrial warehouse in Großolbersdorf, Germany, (Larry Luxner)

World’s largest license plate museum

Curiously, the best collection of Middle Eastern license plates isn’t located in the Middle East, but in Germany. The village of Großolbersdorf, about 20 kilometers from the Czech border, is home to the world’s largest museum — and quite possibly the only one — dedicated exclusively to the history of license plates.

From the outside, the Internationales Museum Für Nummernschilder und Verkehrsgeschichte, as it’s officially known, looks like an aging industrial warehouse about one city block long.

Inside, the three-story building contains 350 square meters of displays packed with license plates. Founded in 2001 by veteran plate collector Sven Rost, it’s open Mondays to Saturdays, 9 am to 4:30 pm, and is certainly the town’s most unusual tourist attraction.

Sven Rost, founder of the Internationales Museum für Nummernschilder in Großolbersdorf, explains a display of rare license plates from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. (Larry Luxner)

“I always call this a transportation museum for the whole family, but without vehicles,” said Rost. “As you can see, people enjoy it. Several times, I’ve seen couple stand in front of the museum. The man says ‘let’s go in,’ and the wife says ‘I don’t want to.’ But if he succeeds in getting her to come inside and you talk to them afterwards, she’ll say she never expected anything like this.”

Rost, who began collecting while on a trip to Alaska with his father in the 1970s, says he now has more than 5,000 plates on display from every country and jurisdiction on Earth.

“We also try to get plates from most former countries,” he explained. “Usually when a country gets independence, one of the first things they change are the license plates. Even the Germans. The first thing they did in every country they occupied was come up with new license plates.”

Police uniforms add context to a display of rare East German license plates at the Internationales Museum für Nummernschilder in Großolbersdorf. (Larry Luxner)

On that note, Rost has a rather large collection of tags issued by the Waffen-SS, as well as a display of German army uniforms used both during the war and afterwards by the communist regime in East Germany. But only one swastika can be seen in the entire museum.

“It’s on a sign for the German Auto Club during the Nazi era,” said Rost, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of wartime plate history. “I have more, but I don’t want to offend anybody.”

Rare and unusual

The biggest plate in Rost’s emporium is from Indonesia, while the oldest is a bicycle plate from Louisiana, issued in 1898. He also has an official “0-001” plate used by Theodor Heuss, the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany — one of only two known to exist.

Sven Rost, founder of the Internationales Museum für Nummernschilder in Großolbersdorf, Germany, displays a rare Hebrew license plate issued in 1978 for use in the Sinai Peninsula, which at that time was still under Israeli occupation. (Larry Luxner)

One of the most interesting Middle East items in Rost’s collection is a white-on-black Israeli plate with a red 1978 tab bearing the Hebrew letters “אדס” for use in the Sinai Peninsula. He also has a green-on-yellow Tunisian diplomatic plate — “PLO-1-CD” — assigned to the Embassy of Palestine, as well as tags from Qatar, Yemen and all seven of the United Arab Emirates.

(The UAE also happens to be the home of Emirati businessman Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri, who in 2008 paid the outrageous sum of 52 million dirhams — about $14.3 million — for Abu Dhabi vanity #1. That set the record for the most expensive plate in history.)

For all its funkiness and charm, Rost’s museum gets fewer than 1,000 visitors a year, and Großolbersdorf itself is not exactly a major tourist destination, even for Germans.

Dutch collectors Dylan Verschoor and his friend, Walter Punzmann of Phoenix, Arizona, admire a display of Arab diplomatic plates at the Internationales Museum für Nummernschilder in Großolbersdorf, Germany. (Larry Luxner)

“This is a very special place, but not many people come here from Berlin or Frankfurt. It’s the end of the world here,” said Detlev Riemann, longtime president of Germany’s Autokennzeichen-Sammlerclub (AKS) — the country’s 200-member plate collector association.

Rost agrees with his longtime friend.

“Everyone asks me why the U.S. doesn’t have a license plate museum. It’s got huge collectors and lots of people with money, and it’s so much bigger,” he muses. “But to open a license plate museum alone, in the middle of nowhere, is pretty stupid. If I could do it all over again, I’d try to find a place that has a natural flow of tourists.”

It helps that AKS has held its spring convention in Großolbersdorf for the past 17 years. The club’s May 2018 swap meet attracted 110 participants from a dozen countries including Israel.

Complete runs of plates from Nebraska, Minnesota and other states are displayed on sliding panels at the Internationales Museum für Nummernschilder in Großolbersdorf. (Larry Luxner)

Among this year’s visitors was Dick Parker, managing director for a New York-based investment banking firm. He was clearly blown away by what he saw.

“The German stuff is out of this world, but Sven also has representative plates from all countries. They’re grouped geographically, which makes it very easy and educational to follow,” said Parker, who has filled his suburban Connecticut home with vintage gasoline pumps, pinball machines and, of course, license plates. “What this man has done in 17 years is amazing. His focus is on everything plate-related, and you can see that he’s devoted everything he has — all his time and money — to make this place absolutely beautiful.”

Added Paul Frater, a Toronto-born heritage architect of Hungarian descent who seeks out plates from Cuba, Hungary and Canada: “This museum shows that you can create something out of nothing. As a collector, I think this place is great. But even for someone who is completely bored by the subject, it still has that ‘wow’ effect. Not many museums can do that.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.