What you see: An inaugural license plate issued to President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, for his second inaugural celebration. It’s one of two lots of inaugural license plates from the Eisenhower-Nixon years in a mid-May sale at Morphy’s; the second lot is a pair issued to Vice President-elect Richard M. Nixon in 1953. Both lots carry estimates of $3,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Jim Fox, consultant for Morphy Auctions.
What were the first inaugural license plates ever issued, and would those plates be most sought-after by collectors? The answer is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933. Those were the first inaugural plates.
I’m surprised it was that late. Keep in mind that automobiles weren’t popular until the teens. But yes, the FDR 1933 plates are the rarest, the least common, and fewer survived. We don’t know how many FDR 1933 plates were issued, and we don’t know how many survived.
I found a 2017 Washington Post article that shows several different inaugural license plates, and it looks like the two designs issued in the 1950s for Eisenhower and Nixon are the only inaugural plates that picture the inaugurees. Is that correct? Yes. These are the only plates that picture the inaugurees.
Do we know how or why the 1950s inaugural license plates came to feature actual black-and-white portrait photographs of Eisenhower and Nixon? I don’t know why they did it, other than it’s an attractive design. I don’t know that there’s more to it than that.
I realize I’m asking you to speculate, but do we have any idea why no other inaugural license plate designs include pictures of the president and the vice president? If it was going to happen [again], I thought it would have happened with the last inaugural. To be honest, I doubt the presidents and vice presidents themselves spent a lot of time on inaugural license plates. The inaugural committees make decisions like that. [Putting portraits on inaugural plates is] a great idea, and looking back, it looks like a better and better idea. But I can’t tell you what the logic was.
I find it odd that no one since Eisenhower and Nixon has included their pictures in an inaugural license plate design. It seems like a natural. We’re Americans. We love our cars, and we love telling the world what we think about politics by sticking things onto our cars. Lots of people would buy an inaugural license plate that shows the faces of the president and the vice president. In today’s culture, it does seem natural, and it [putting imagery on license plates] is a proven technology. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I’m sorry to say I don’t. Somebody thought it was a good idea, and went with it.
It’s weird, looking at the other inaugural license plates–they’re kind of interchangeable. If you covered up the year, there’d be no way to guess which plate belonged to which inaugural, except for the Eisenhower-Nixon plates. Absolutely true. Block the date and they’re the same.
It seems extra-weird that only Eisenhower and Nixon appear on inaugural license plates because the president who came after them, John F. Kennedy, was one of the most telegenic presidents we’ve ever had. You’d think he or his inaugural committee would want to put his picture on the plates. Kennedy switched, and for whatever reason, they didn’t see it as necessary. Maybe they thought it was too expensive. I don’t think the minds of people worked the same then as they do now. Now, everything’s telegenic. Hollywood, let’s call it Hollywood. But license plates are legal documents. That’s all they are–legal documents. They validate a vehicle for a short period of time.
Would the inaugural license plates have come with registrations? Yes. They were legitimate. They were just legitimate for a short time. [Neither of the two lots of inaugural license plates has retained their registration paperwork.]
I take it the registrations would have been placed in the glove boxes of the cars that rolled along D.C. streets in those 1950s inaugural parades? You can bet that no one [would have pulled over Eisenhower or Nixon and] said, “Excuse me, can I see your registration?” On a practical level, it’s worthless. On a historical level, it’s priceless.
Were inaugural license plates only used in inaugural parades? They were used just for inaugural parades, but by the 1960s, the plates were good for the month of the inaugural. Later, it was extended to 90 days. You could put the plates on your car and do what you wanted with them. I put a Nixon second inaugural plate on my car in the 1970s, and the police stopped me within the hour, asking, “Is that a real plate?” The policeman looked at me for the longest time and finally said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I said, “You don’t have to. It’s legitimate.”
Where were you pulled over? This was in Ohio. Anything [any inaugural license plate appearing on a car] outside of D.C. and the police think, “What the heck?” The policeman finally said goodbye. He never figured it out.
Do we know what technique or tool was used in the 1950s to print black-and-white photographic portraits onto steel to create these inaugural license plates? Whatever they used must have been effective, because the images still look good after sixty-odd years. That’s right, they look great. But that question is out of my league, that’s all I can say.
My best guess–and it’s definitely a guess–is someone on the first Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural committee either created the printing process or knew the company that did, and told the committee members about it, and they went for it. That’s as likely to be the case as anything. Or it could have been curiosity – “I wonder if we can get their photographs onto a plate?” As far as I know, it was never used outside those two inaugurals.
Did both lots of inaugural plates come from the same consigner? Yes.
Do we know how long the consigner had them? As far as I’m aware, he had them in the ’70s.
Lot 2008, the inaugural license plate issued to Eisenhower for his second ceremony, consists of one plate. Do we know where its mate is? Might the Eisenhower family have kept it? That’s not out of the question, but it’s not known what happened to the other plate.
The condition of the 1957 Eisenhower inaugural license plate is rated at 9.0. What does that mean? Morphy’s has a way of grading plates that is not widely used [among license plate collectors]. A 10 would be perfect. In the world of license plates, we give letters: F for fair, G for good, EX for excellent.
How does the 9.0 translate into a grade on the letter scale? Probably very good (VG) to very good plus (VG+). All the plates in those two lots are nice. One [one of the two Nixon plates from 1953] has a slight distortion of a bolt hole that brings it down a bit [to an 8.5 rating]. But a VG+ plate is still a beautiful plate, or it should be.
Inaugural license plates issued to presidents and vice presidents weren’t left on the cars for long. But do collectors like to see some wear on them? Something that proves they were actually on a car that a president or vice president rode in during an inaugural parade? My answer is absolutely. You want a little bit of road dust to prove it was on the road.
As I was preparing my questions, my 9-year-old pointed out to me that the two men are smiling on the 1953 inaugural license plate and aren’t smiling on the 1957 plate. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or is the 1953 a bit more valuable because it’s from the first Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural? [Laughs] I got a kick out of that. I think it’s perfect that a 9-year-old made that observation. Though it probably has no significance whatsoever, it’s a fascinating observation.
It is kind of startling to see Nixon smiling. That doesn’t strike me as being his natural state. And you can see these guys age a ton in those four years.
The Eisenhower lot consists of a single inaugural license plate from 1957. The Nixon lot has both plates from 1953, the first inaugural. Both lots have the same estimate: $3,000 to $6,000. Why? Can you explain why things shake out this way? Number one is more desirable than number two. As a result, a single inaugural plate from a president compares to a pair from the vice president.
What are the inaugural license plates like in person? They’re more substantial than modern plates, which are made of aluminum. These plates are steel, and the plates were made from steel up to the 1980s.
What’s the world auction record for an inaugural license plate? Might one of these lots set a new record? The record would have to be an FDR 1933 plate. I think it’s possible one of these could set a record. It’s a matter of who tunes in.
How to bid: The 1957 Eisenhower inaugural plate is lot 2008 in the Automobilia & Petroliana sale at Morphy Auctions on May 13 and 14, 2020. The pair of 1953 Nixon inaugural plates is lot 2009. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.