Would you pay $1 million for heritage number plates?

Moving Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 18 March 2020

The record-breaking number plates worth over a million dollars.

Forget how hot your wheels are, it’s the number on your licence plate that sets you apart in Victoria.

Rare Victorian car plates are a new status symbol distinguishing the mega rich from the merely wealthy, and the stakes just got higher.

Car enthusiasts and hungry investors routinely snap up heritage and novelty plates for tens of thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Now a new benchmark for conspicuous spending has been set.

Victorian number plate

A two-digit, black-and-white heritage plate, VIC 26, sold at auction this month for an eye-watering $1.11 million – that’s about $250,000 more than the current median house price in Victoria.

It’s more than double the last Victorian record of $535,000 paid at last year’s Shannons Melbourne autumn auction for a similar early-issue Victorian number plate ‘59’.

The record-breaking price bounded past Shannons’ pre-auction estimate of $600,000 to $700,000.

Still, it falls short of the Australian record of $2.45 million paid for NSW plate ‘4’, in 2017, and way below the potential $5 million for Victoria’s holy grail, licence plate VIC 1 – not that it’s for sale.

So, who spends big on number plates and why? The movers and shakers in this scene include the Smorgon steel dynasty, the family reportedly owning plates VIC 2, VIC 9, VIC 90 and VIC 900. Former Geelong Football Club president Frank Costa has VIC 3 and transport magnate Lindsay Fox has several heritage plates for his fleet of prestige cars.

Shannons’ national auction manager Christophe Boribon says both car enthusiasts and investors eye off historic plates for a similar reason. They not only hold value, they appreciate.

The recording-breaking VIC 26 plate was bought by a car enthusiast in 2000 for about $70,000, Christophe says. That’s a profit of $1.04 million in 20 years, or $52,000 a year.

Many plates have increased in value by more than 2000 per cent since they were first auctioned in the 1980s, and some are worth more than the luxury cars they adorn.

The buyer of the VIC 26 plates is an auction regular but remains anonymous unless, of course, they use the plates, which are legal, on their current ride.

Some buyers are even turning to plates as an alternative to volatile stockmarkets, Christophe says.

“We get car enthusiasts who can see the value in something they can use but at every auction with about 100 to 150 buyers, a third are investors,” he says.

“Unlike shares, plates are tangible. You can display them on your car or in your home. You get something physical that you can hold on to.”

Heritage plates are something timeless to behold, with metal coated in black vitreous enamel and embossed with white numbers.

Held in private hands, the most desirable are single-digit plates. “There’s only nine of them, VIC one to nine,” Christophe says. “The rarity pushes up the price when, and if, they come on to the market.”

Victorian number plate
Victorian number plate

The lower the number, the higher the value, he says. “But some are bought because the number combinations are significant to the buyer,” he says.

Although it was a five-digit plate, the ‘80.888’ sold for a remarkable $104,000 at Shannons’ last auction because the number eight is considered a symbol of good fortune in Chinese culture.

Melbourne entrepreneur Johnny Flammea, of Jonnee Coffee, hopes to cash in on the Chinese market with his plate bought from VicRoads a decade ago for $4000.

The two-letter plate, F U, which is equivalent to the Chinese Mandarin word Fu, meaning wealth, is for sale at $100,000 at platesales.com.au.

“The plate is a talking point, it has meanings in English and Mandarin,” Johnny says.

“It will take a bold personality who can own it and then put it on a car that stands out,” he says.  

The car enthusiast bought several number plates from VicRoads including his own initials, JF, and says he couldn’t resist the cheeky F U plate.

VicRoads sells custom number plates allowing buyers to choose a combination of letters and numbers as well as special-interest plates covering everything from football clubs to fishing. 

For example, Tigers fans can get a plate starting with 19 for the club’s 2019 premiership year, followed by RT for the Richmond Tigers, then choose the remaining two letters or numbers to complete it and pay $695.

But the real value lies in historic plates such as a three-digit heritage plate, number 817, that sold for $165,000 at the recent Shannons auction while a four-digit historic numeric plate, 8.228, made $132,000 at the same auction. 

The most valuable historic Victorian plate is VIC 1, reportedly owned by former Foster’s Group and Coles Myer chief executive Peter Bartels who negotiated it as part of his severance package from CUB in 1992.

This plate has been coveted since it was made in 1932, sparking a fight between the then state’s premier, governor and police commissioner over ownership. There was no settling the argument, so the plate was locked away in a Motor Registration Board safe until it was auctioned in 1984.

A retired Ballarat mechanic, Gary Price, paid $165,000 for it and it has since been owned by several private identities including millionaire car wholesaler the late Izzy Herzog.

Christophe says the coveted plate today could fetch up to $5 million or “whatever people are prepared to pay for it”.  

In a climate where being number one and having a car licence plate to affirm that status counts, that could be more.

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