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Some Call Him 'Nuts,' but Downey Collector Loves His License Plates

June 22, 1989|ROCHELLE WILKERSON | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — Louk Markham failed to make the "Guinness Book of World Records" with the claim that he has the largest collection of license plates in the world.

But that did not stop him from boasting the largest such collection in the Southeast area and certainly in all of Downey.

He has license plates from Afghanistan before the Russian invasion, from South America, parts of Europe, Canadian provinces and, of course, from every state and territory of the United States, including hundreds from California.

They come to a grand total of 10,000.

"As I get them, I catalogue them," said Markham, 33, as he stood in his garage gazing at row upon row of license plates on one wall and the four binders full of information on the plates. "I don't look forward to moving."

People are amazed and curious about his hobby, Markham said. They wonder why anyone would keep so many license plates.

"Some think I am nuts," Markham said. "Cars, in general, interest me. To collect license plates is a hobby I can afford without collecting the rest of the car."

And there is another advantage: collecting license plates is not a complicated hobby. All that is needed are bolt cutters, a few screwdrivers and a hammer, said Markham, a school bus driver.

Search of Junkyards

In California, it is illegal to take plates from abandoned cars in junkyards, so Markham occasionally visits other junkyards outside the state, where he says there are no legal problems.

"I look for the oldest car there and go for it," he said. Markham doesn't always forage for plates, however; he buys some from private collectors and at regional and national shows.

Markham estimates the value of his collection at $50,000. The most he ever paid was $500 for a pair of 1907 Pennsylvania plates made of porcelain.

Markham's stories about the plates sound as if they could be questions and answers from the game of Trivial Pursuit.

For example, 1947 plates from Illinois were made of soybean and cardboard. That combination proved disastrous during the rainy season. Markham said that some early plates matched the house numbers of the car owners, were made of leather and nailed to the front of the car. The 1934 Arizona plate was made of copper, he said.

And then there is the piece of metal that Markham calls one of the rarest license plates in America.

Markham's 1917 Nevada specimen is simply a flat piece of metal that weathered well in the state's dry climate. Unfortunately, the top half of the plate was torn off, rendering the prize valueless. But Markham is ever hopeful that he will get the top half or an undamaged plate from that year that could be worth up to $300.

The collection began while Markham was on a family vacation as a child in 1966. His father Wendell, a stamp and coin collector, tried in vain to interest his son in those hobbies, until . . . .

"We traveled in a VW van and picked up license plates. It just grew from there," Markham said.

Father Moved Away

The collection is a joint father-and-son venture. However, when the elder Markham moved from Downey to Joshua Tree, the son was left holding the plates.

In March, Markham received his "neatest and newest" additions. His father visited several countries in the Middle East and brought back a few plates from Jerusalem and from the family of King Hussein of Jordan.

"The plate may not necessarily be from the king's car, but it is from the car of someone in his family."

What's going to become of all those license plates in Markham's garage? He expects to pass them along to his 7-year-old son Adam, the first of his three children. "I plan on it, should he show an interest."

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