In all states, there may be old money and new money. In Delaware there’s also “tag money.” Qui bono? Only the owner.
As far back as Frankie Vassalo IV can remember, his grandfather Fusco enjoyed a fascination with the number 9.
“When that number came up as an available registration number on a Delaware license plate in 1994, my grandfather went a little crazy,” Vassalo says.
“A little crazy” is subject to interpretation. More than a decade before Vassalo set a record for big money—$675,000—by becoming the successful bidder on the No. 6 plate in February, Grandpa created the market by paying $185,000 for the No. 9 plate in 1994. Over the years the elder Fusco and the Fusco family have taken it further, almost to the point of cornering the market.
“We currently own a total of 17 low-digit plates that we feel are worth somewhere between $3 million and $3.4 million,” Vassalo says.
John Murphy of Milford wasn’t surprised when the bid for his late father’s Delaware No. 6 license plate reached $675,000.
“Over the years Dad had received offers of money, land, and homes from builders and contractors looking to acquire that tag,” Murphy says. “But Dad wanted to keep it in the family.”
With one of those previous offers totaling $185,000, the elder Murphy had a pretty good idea what kind of value that single-digit tag held. Realizing there would be no equitable way to distribute the wealth among his four children, Charles Murphy directed in his will that the tag be sold at auction. Son John, having already turned down a private offer of $500,000, believed the figure could go significantly higher.
“I got a little nervous when the bidding seemed to stall after hitting $300,000,” Murphy recalls of that Sunday in February. “But Butch [William Emmert] used his sales charm and it revved up again.”
In addition to owning the two single-digit plates, the family business, Fusco Properties, owns more than a half-dozen two-digit plates and an even larger number of three-digit plates.
Because the plates must remain registered with the Division of Motor Vehicles to hold their value, the family maintains a fleet of 17 cars to display them. By itself, an unregistered tag is worth nothing more than the materials it’s made of.
“Obviously, we’re going to run out of cars, so what we’re doing is offering plates we own in exchange for plates we would like to own,” Vassalo says.
Since the family has adopted their grandfather’s fascination with the number 9 and its multiples, it’s on the lookout for valid tags 36, 45, 54 and so on. The family maintains a spread sheet that tracks owners of all plates through 100. When they learn of one for sale, they’re ready to horse trade.
We’re talking about license plates here, not Rolex watches, Wyeth paintings or vases from the Ming Dynasty. It is another one of those only-in-Delaware phenomena that is a phenomenon only to those who don’t live here.
“I started selling plates at auction back in the early 1970s,” says William “Butch” Emmert, president of Emmert Auction Associates in Rehoboth Beach. “I’ve seen them grow steadily in value from three-digit plates selling for $2,500 back then. Now anything under four digits is going for a lot of money.”
Again, it’s the registered low digits, not the design or color of the plate, that determines value. And it’s all related to the way Delaware manages its auto registrations.
“Unlike most other states, Delaware does not require license plates to be turned in when registration changes or residents move out of state,” says Mike Williams, a spokesman for DelDOT. “Delaware registration grants the right to display the plate. The plate itself belongs to the registrants, and it’s theirs for life to pass within the family or sell.”
Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania require their plates be turned into their DMVs when vehicles are sold or the owner moves out of state. Williams says that, with Delaware’s relatively small driving population, the current plate—a letter or letters and up to six digits—is in no danger of exhausting the available supply of numbers anytime soon, so there’s no need for a plate recall to increase availability.
The wrinkle that provides what Murphy calls “a prestige thing” is the 1940s-era state issue of the porcelain-on-black plate that you’ll often see attached to high-end automobiles and antique cars. Only that plate is allowed to be reproduced. The work is done under contract by the Newark-based Delaware Historic Plate Company, which has been the sole approved vendor for reproduction of the plate since 1992.
“Other states may permit the continued use of old license plates,” says company owner Dave Miller, “but Delaware is the only state that allows a private company to duplicate historic plates with current, valid registrations.”
If things seem to be getting a little murky between original-issue black-and-whites, reproductions, and the far more common blue-and-gold plates, they are, which has led to the occasional illegal plate being displayed on some Delaware vehicles.
“In order to obtain a black-and-white reproduction, the car owner must furnish us with a copy of a valid registration displaying the number to be reproduced,” Miller says. “If the valid registration number is between 1 and 86,999, the owner may obtain a black-and-white reproduction of his current plate.”
The numbering is limited because, for the original black-and-white plates issued between 1941 and 1948, numbers did not exceed 86,999. “So in order to be a historic reproduction, the current registration must reflect only numbers running in that bracketed sequence,” Williams says.
In the case of Murphy’s successful auction of his dad’s No. 6, the original No. 6 was a blue-and-gold plate the elder Murphy received as a hand-me-down from his father-in-law in 1973.
“He kept it on his car the entire time he had it, and since he would scrape the sticker area with a screwdriver to clean it off for the new sticker, the plate was scratched up and weather worn,” says John Murphy. “Then about two years ago my son-in-law Jeff presented Dad with a black-and-white reproduction as a Christmas present.”
It was the black-and-white reproduction that fetched the big bucks at auction. Murphy still has the original blue-and-gold No. 6.
“Butch felt that the reproduction would sell better than the original because of the status the black-and-white plates have here,” Murphy says. “Besides, by the time we brought up the subject, Butch had already published his advertising for the auction showing the black-and-white plate.”
Not everyone in this low-digit, black-and-white porcelain cult—kind of a Delawarean Skull and Bones society—is out to make a buck. Doris Dayton inherited tag 191. She’s perfectly happy to keep it as a memory of her late father.
“My father came by the plate quite by accident,” says Dayton, of Seaford, a former Legislative Hall employee. “He found the car in a junk yard and literally bought the car for the tag.”
That was at least 50 years ago. Dayton considers it a quaint tale of a bygone era. Yet the value of tags as status symbols is such that politicians in Dover are generally the first to acquire available low-digit numbers through their connections in the Division of Motor Vehicles.
“Most legislators got their tags through these connections,” Dayton says—all except for the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state, who receive tags 1, 2 and 3 respectively as a result of their office.
Another style of plate—stainless steel with riveted numerals—though distinctive in their manufacture, cannot, by law, be duplicated today. And since the stainless steel was produced only between 1949 and 1959, when the current blue-and-gold design came in, even low-numbered stainless plates lack cachet.
Former highway department employee Snookie Vent recalls once seeing a cowhide plate that dates back to the first decade of the 20th century. Though he doesn’t own one himself (he guesses there may be only two or three around), he’s made a replica which he’s added to his collection of nearly 50 plates, “about a dozen of which are valid tags,” he says.
His collection includes replica tags and vanity plates signed by notables such as Frank Perdue and U.S. Senator Joe Biden. “I got four signed by the senator,” Vent says.
His extensive knowledge of the Delaware plate business convinced Paul Bradley to recruit Vent into his online brokerage business (www.lowtags.com). The partnership has bought, sold or brokered about 100 plates since its formation in 2006. According to Bradley, plates with repeating digits, such as plates bearing 4444, are increasing in value. “Even five-digit plates are worth as much as $2,000 today,” Bradley says.
Emmert, who auctions about 50 low-digit plates a year—of which 40 are of the black and white variety—suggests owning a low-digit plate is both an inflation-proof investment, as well as a way of showing that you’ve arrived.
“Imagine a woman of means stepping out of her Mercedes, covered in furs and maybe flashing a $30,000 diamond ring on her fingers,” Emmert says. “The first thing people will notice, though, is the low-digit tag on the back of her car.”
Only in Delaware, though. In every other state, eyes would be on the Mercedes, the ring, the fur and her bodyguard.