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A license to collect.

Snow-capped mountains surround the Argentine village of San Martin de los Andes, where architect Daniel Rubinger pursues an unusual hobby after long hours at the office:license-plate collecting.

Clear across the other side of Argentina, near the Paraguayan border at Posadas, lives real-estate agent Alfredo Abrazian. He has dozens of license tags from all over the world hung in his storefront office along Calle Sarmiento for passersby to admire. "It's good for business," he jokes.

Both Rubinger and Abrazian are among a very select group of people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean who make a hobby out of accumulating what Argentines call patentes, Puerto Ricans tablillas, Dominicans placas and Chileans chapas. Like the region's inhabitants, these license plates come in an astounding variety of sizes, colors, shapes and textures.

Despite their beauty and inherent historical value, the number of people worldwide who collect motor vehicle registration plates is negligible. The U.S.-based Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) has only 5,500 members, half of which are inactive. And unlike stamp collectors, properly known as philatelists, the study of license plates is so arcane there isn't even a name for those who engage in it.

The truth is that no one really knows how license plates began. The bible of all serious hobbyists - the 558-page Registration Plates of the World, published by the European Registration Plate Association in London - claims the German state of Baden began issuing plates on a regular basis in 1896, and that Luxembourg was reported to have issued the number "1" tag to a Benz the year before.

According to the book's researchers, the first Latin American governments to issue number plates were Argentina and Chile i 1904, followed by Ecuador in 1905 and Puerto Rico in 1912.

No one knows when license plates first appeared in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela or the republics of Central American, but early porcelain tags from these countries command upwards of $100. One particularly sought-after plate is that issued by the Argentine province of Neuquen in the early 1960s, which sports a beautiful hand-painted scene of Lanin Vocano. Only 100 or so of these plates are known to exist.

Rubinger, who has lived in Neuquen for the last 10 years and keeps perhaps 30 of those plates in his garage, says he has been collecting casually for five years and seriously for the last two.

"I was already collecting antique motorcycles," he said. "One day a friend gave me an old patente from Junin de los Andes, number 8. From then on, I began looking for old porcelain plates, That's what I specialize in now."

So how does one begin collecting license plates? Stealing them off cars is hardly the recommended method, though some people do just that. A much safer way is to visit garage sales and junkyards, where bargains often proliferate. Used car dealerships and gas stations are also good sources for plates.

In some places, like Cuba where there are few cars, it is difficult and often illegal to exit the country with license plates in tow. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has nearly 1.5 million registered vehicles, so finding number plates from the Caribbean island is considerably easier. Still another way of acquiring plates is through groups such as ALPCA or the London-based Europlate, whose members exchange license tags through the mail.

Although no museum to date has been built to honor license plates or their collectors, Argentina has the next best thing: a sacred shrine where license plates take on an almost religious significance. Difunta Correa, a truly bizarre site, attracts some 600,000 pilgrims a year. There in the desert (over-looking an altar that commemorates the memory of a baby who suckled at the breast of his dead mother and miraculously survived the scorching heat) exactly 494 license plates sway slowly in the wind.

The tags - most of them from Argentina and Chile but some from as far away as New York, Texas and Spain - are strung up by truckers, motorists or anyone hoping for a new car or similar miracle. "It's like a promise," says site administrator Juan Carlos Solero. "Truckers who pass through Difunta Correa stop for five minutes and leave a limozna. If they were in an accident and the vehicle was totally destroyed, they leave the plate as an offering to the Difunta."

Unfortunately, this is one place where these unique hobbyists can forget about adding to their collection. "We sell bicycles, old cars, trucks and appliances," says Solero. "But the plates are not for sale."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:auto license plates
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Spain in the Heart: Hymn to the Glories of the People at War.
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