Home The Washington Diplomat A license to collect: Unraveling the obscure history of diplomatic plates

A license to collect: Unraveling the obscure history of diplomatic plates

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A license to collect: Unraveling the obscure history of diplomatic plates
At left: Guatemala, Czech Republic, Cambodia, Zaire, Australia (Queensland), Albania, Bosnia, Zambia, Algeria. At right: David Mack, former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, holds up the "souvenir" he picked up in 1991 during an official tour to Kuwait after Iraq's defeat in the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had issued these license plates for Kuwait, which he considered the 19th province of Iraq. But the Kuwaitis hated them and destroyed as many as possible—making these plates a rarity highly sought by collectors. (Photo by Victor Shiblie)

Presidential motorcades, huge monuments and noisy political protests are all part of the fabric of life in Washington, D.C. So are foreign diplomats and their license plates—which, like in any world capital, imply special perks like premium parking spaces and immunity from speeding tickets.

But what about these so-called “diplo plates” as collectibles?

If one can collect rare art, stamps, coins, maps and autographs, why not those colorful little rectangular pieces of tin that have come to symbolize the ultimate in diplomatic privilege?

Actually, a handful of people do seek out these plates, myself included. But the hobby is so esoteric, there isn’t even a name for it. At present, 189 collectors belong to the Facebook group Diplomatic License Plates—a fraction of the 12,400 members, mostly males, of the much larger License Plate Collectors group.

About half of the 200 diplomatic license plates owned by Russian collector Alexander Vladimirov of Moscow are shown here.

One of them is Daniel Morales-Bronner, a Colombian by birth who moved to the United States in 2002 and now lives in Charlotte, N.C.

“I like these plates because they feel powerful,” says Morales-Bronner, who has about 40 diplo plates in his collection—a passion fueled more than 20 years ago when his mother landed a part-time job at the Austrian Embassy in Bogotá. Her car was assigned a blue non-diplomatic staff plate, “AT-0228.” When his mom left the job, she gave him that plate as a souvenir.

Since then, he’s acquired more diplomatic plates from Austria, Colombia, France, Panama, Germany and Switzerland.

License plate collecting has its risky moments

Ross Day is archivist of the Virginia-based Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA), which has about 3,000 active members. He says most ALPCA members focus only on US and Canadian plates, with only a handful of others who collect non-North American tags.

From top: Australia (New South Wales), Afghanistan, Burundi, Pakistan.

“Their motivations are no different from their colleagues: an interest in license plate design and manufacture, a facility with non-Roman scripts, or an attraction to a plate’s historical and geopolitical context,” he said, explaining that collectors often have personal or professional interests in regions from where they collect.

Back in 1991, Day was detained by Syrian police while trying to photograph a license plate on a 1940s vintage Buick parked, of all places, in front of a police station in Damascus. After a friendly chat with the cop, Day was freed, but warned to be more careful when taking pictures.

Another time, Day spotted a military vehicle in Samarqand, an ancient city along the fabled Silk Road in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. He had his wife pose nearby in hopes of getting a photo of the plate, drawing unwanted scrutiny from a young army recruit. Day was rescued by a more senior officer who assured his colleague that Western tourists were strange but harmless creatures.

Top row: Albania (Greek Embassy), Slovakia (Chinese Embassy), Netherlands. Bottom row: Russia (Armenian Embassy), India (Spanish Embassy), Serbia.

“Worldwide, the notion of preserving—let alone collecting—license plates is, well, foreign. And there is always the possibility of restrictions on the possession or export of license plates, which may be considered ‘government property,’” he said. “For me as the club’s archivist-cum-historian, my interest is both academic and personal.”

My own collection of about 530 plates includes roughly 60 issued to foreign diplomats. These include heavy cast plates from the 1960s issued to US Embassy staff in Lebanon, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, as well as a communist-era Albanian plate picked up during my second visit to that Balkan country in 1992.

Every diplo plate tells a story

In addition, I have diplo plates from Afghanistan to Zaire and many countries in between—including Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia and Slovakia. Also in the collection: consular tags from two Australian states (New South Wales and Queensland) and two US states (Texas and Arizona). Some of these plates were free for the asking, and others cost $100 or more, though more often than not, I’ve traded plates I don’t need for ones I really want.

Top row: Nicaragua, Israel (EU), Ontario, Nepal. Middle row: Belize (USA), Spain, Lebanon, Switzerland (Colombian mission, Geneva). Bottom row: Morocco and Saudi Arabia (USA), Arizona, Texas (Israeli consul, Houston).

Outside the United States, nearly all diplo plates contain the letters “CD” or “CC,” making them relatively easy to identify. Throughout Central America, they often bear the letters “MI” for misión internacional, and in Israel, diplo plates almost always end in “22.”

My two oldest diplo plates are from Spain (1955) and Guatemala (1957), while one of my most unusual is “C.D. – 4” from Belize. This hand-painted plate once belonged to Bruce Pearson, a former US diplomat (and longtime ALPCA member) stationed in that English-speaking country who is now enjoying his retirement in New Mexico.

Ambassadors are, of course, a great source for exotic license plates. Bruce Mack, the former US envoy to the United Arab Emirates, picked up a particularly rare specimen in 1991 during an official tour to Kuwait following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had issued these plates for Kuwait—which he considered the 19th province of Iraq. But the Kuwaitis hated them and destroyed as many of them as possible—making the one Mack recently gave me a rarity highly sought by collectors.

But some plates are simply too valuable to be given away.

One such example is “26 53,” the square black Libyan plate with Arabic script that had graced the diplomatic vehicle of former US Ambassador Joseph Palmer. In November 1972, Palmer was recalled to Washington after a young Col. Muammar Qaddafi closed US air bases in Libya and partially nationalized foreign oil companies. When diplomatic relations were finally restored 35 years later—in 2007—the State Department sent Gene Cretz to reopen the embassy in Tripoli.

Retired diplomat Gene Cretz, the former US ambassador to Libya, displays the license plate and flag that graced the car of the previous American ambassador in Tripoli, Joseph Palmer, who left in 1972. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Two years later, the Washington Diplomat interviewed Cretz during a reporting trip to Libya. At the end of our meeting, Cretz proudly took the souvenir from a desk drawer and held it up for a quick photo. But it was obvious this plate wasn’t leaving the embassy; it’s a relic of history.

Germany’s quirky little plate museum

According to Registration Plates of the World—the bible of all serious international plate collectors—the first country in the world to issue license plates for automobiles was France, in 1893. The first US plates were issued in 1901. Unfortunately, nobody knows when the first diplomatic license plates appeared, or in which country.

Until the 1980s, individual states and the District of Columbia were responsible for issuing diplomatic license plates for embassies and consulates within their jurisdictions. Since then, however, only the federal government issues such plates.

The State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) assigns random two-letter codes following the initial “D” for diplomat or “S” for embassy staff to specific countries, but it doesn’t publicize those codes for obvious security reasons. The plates themselves are manufactured in Virginia—hence their similarity to Virginia plates in style and font—and diplomats must return all such plates to OMF’s Diplomatic Motor Vehicle Office when their assignment comes to an end.

Perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later, someone would open a license-plate museum. The sleepy German hamlet of Großolbersdorf—about 20 kilometers from what in communist times was the border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia—boasts exactly that: an enormous museum dedicated exclusively to license plates.

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. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

The three-story former factory building contains 350 square meters of huge wooden vertical panels packed with license plates. Founded in 2001 by veteran collector Sven Rost, the museum features 5,000 plates (only a small fraction of the collection’s total size), representing every country and jurisdiction on Earth.

Among the more unusual items on display here: 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. There’s also a green-on-yellow Tunisian diplomatic plate—“PLO-1-CD”—assigned to the Embassy of Palestine in Tunis.

“I always call this a transportation museum for the whole family, but without vehicles,” said Rost, 51, who began saving plates in 1984 and charges visitors a nominal €2.20 admission fee. “Everything you see here is 99.9% from my private collection.”

The Dutch diplo plate collector king

Some collectors have turned their homes into mini-museums, while others have put their collections online, such as Bart Bartholomeus, who has about 190 diplo plates from 83 countries.

“Around 1986, my aunt moved from Belgium to the Netherlands and she gave me my first foreign license plate to hang on the wall,” said the 50-year-old Dutchman, a facility manager at a local pharmaceutical warehouse.

One day, Bartholomeus spotted a car with Alberta plates at a local repair shop and left a note on the windshield asking for them. A few weeks later, he received six Canadian plates from that Good Samaritan—and that started him on the road to serious collecting. Eventually he decided to focus only on Dutch and diplomatic plates.

Throughout the years, Bartholomeus has employed a clever method for expanding his collection: he simply asks Dutch diplomats overseas for their plates when their assignment ends.

Dutch collector Bart Bartholomeus holds up a Mexican diplomatic plate, one of 190 such license plates in his collection.

“Back in the early ‘90s, in the pre-Internet era, I wrote to Dutch embassies in foreign countries, explaining about my collection. Most of the time, I was told that it was impossible, but sometimes I received nice plates by mail. Now that we have Internet, searching and contacting embassies is a little easier, but obtaining diplomatic plates is still not so easy. It’s a matter of contacting the right person at the right time—and assuming that person understands my hobby and trusts that I won’t use the plates illegally.”

His favorite plates: a CD specimen from Burkina Faso, where a friend of his father lived for 20 years, and another from Sudan, which came from a Dutch TV news reporter who had picked it up during an African assignment; after his death, the reporter’s son gave it to Bartholomeus.

A passionate collector in Australia

It’s much the same story in Australia, home of internationally known collector Jim Gordon.

License plates from Jim Gordon’s collection grace the cover of a 2007 book on the international diplomatic corps.

“Living in and around Canberra, Australia’s national capital, meant a constant exposure to diplomatic plates,” said Gordon, who has 6,200 plates (including 100 diplo tags) from 60 countries. “They were grey on maroon and this color was specifically chosen as there were no other plates of this color in Australia, making them very easy to spot.”

The 62-year-old geologist, who now resides in Western Australia, got into the hobby after registering his first car with the local motor vehicle office. There, while at the inspection area, he noticed a huge collection of plates displayed on the wall, including dozens of diplomatic plates donated by returning Aussie diplomats who had served in embassies around the world.

“I was captivated by these displays and set out on the path to get my own collection,” Gordon told us. “By trading with the blokes at the registry, I was able to get my own Australian Capital Territory (ACT) diplomatic plates, and a trickle of overseas ones.”Gordon “got proactive and creative” by sending letters to every Australian embassy and high commission around the globe, asking for plates.

“I soon discovered the plate collecting fraternity and clubs with like-minded individuals, and I was on my way,” he said. “Forty years on, and I’m still going strong.”

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