Tom Smart, Deseret News
Chuck Damerow, from Tucson, Ariz., looks at Alan Aitken's complete set of Utah license plates at the National Convention for the American License Plate Collection Association convention in Salt Lake City Thursday. Aitken estimates he has 3,000 to 4,000 plates in his collection, which he started about 20 years ago. The convention runs through Saturday.

Are license plates treasures worth saving?

While searching through a dump, Alan Aitken found a discarded piece of metal and decided to keep it. Something left as trash by one person can become someone else's treasure.

The license plate Aitken found that day, about 20 years ago, is still in his collection today. He kept the plate simply because it was from 1954, the year he was born, and he thought it was a fun piece of memorabilia. After telling a friend at work about his find, Aitken was introduced to the world of license-plate collecting.

Today his collection of front-and-back plates from every year since 1915 is thought to be worth almost $60,000. Aitken estimates he has 3,000 to 4,000 plates, which he noted isn't many compared to other collectors he knows.

The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association is holding its 54th Annual Convention at the Salt Palace through Saturday. The association, or club as it is often referred to, has about 3,000 members from across the United States and 19 other countries.

The group met in Salt Lake City to bring together 600 collectors and traders representing almost all of the 50 states. The convention is a chance for license-plate junkies to sell or trade plates of which they have duplicates or that they no longer want. They come to meets across the country in search of the plates they need to complete valuable collections.

"My wife made me believe I was the only idiot who collected rusty pieces of metal," said Craig Johnson, a local collector.

Johnson started collecting plates about twenty years ago, when he was on vacation in Georgia. He picked one up as a memento. The next time he went on vacation he decided he should pick one up from that location too.

The bug bit, and Johnson soon began scouring junk yards, antique shops and later even eBay for older, more obscure plates. One night he was watching TV and saw a clip on a local channel advertising for the club.

"I had no idea there was a club," Johnson remembered.

He soon joined the club and has since attended many collectors' swap meets to improve his personal collection.

While the majority of plates found at the convention were from the 50 states, Dirk Muyldermans was trading and selling something a little different, which caught the eye of many collectors. Muyldermans is a schoolteacher in Belgium. He focuses on international plates.

"About 30 years ago, I saw a plate on a car from New York," Muyldermans explained regarding his start. The New York plate was something people in Belgium rarely saw, and it showed Muyldermans a part of the world about which he knew little. He began collecting plates from countries across the world and even joined a collectors' group in Belgium, of which he is now the president.

Muyldermans' wife, Carine, described the study in the Belgian home. "All four walls are covered," but Carine said that is where her husband's decorating skills end. The study is the only room in their home where the collection is allowed.

"Very expensive wallpaper," Muyldermans joked.

The family's study dedicates an entire wall to plates from America, the other three include plates from various places in Europe, Asia, Australia and many other countries.

Traveling to different countries a few times a year, depending on how close the countries are, may appear to be hard on family life. But when dad goes to his swap meets, the family gets to go on a vacation, Muyldermans' daughter Britt explained.

The club's convention will continue through Saturday. However, membership is required to attend. For more information on becoming a member or just to learn more about the hobby, visit www.alpca.org.


E-mail: cmadsen@desnews.com