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A rare, first-of-its kind Chicago license plate is up for auction

A rare Chicago license plate is up for auction until Sunday.
Donley Auctions
A rare Chicago license plate is up for auction until Sunday.

Attention, auto enthusiasts: The "holy grail" of Chicago license plates is up for auction.

A black-and-white aluminum plate stamped with just the single numeral "1" gives bidders a chance to earn a piece of automotive history. The plate was made in 1904, the first year that Chicago made metal license plates, and the only year the city made plates from thin, stamped aluminum, according to the item's description on the auction site.

"Only (a) handful of these were made," said Mike Donley of Donley Auctions. "And it's number 1. It doesn't get any lower than that."

Before Illinois began making statewide license plates, Chicago issued its own plates between 1903 and 1907, Donley said. From that era, auctioneers said, those made in 1904 are the rarest. For the next few years that followed, the flimsy and damage-prone aluminum plates were replaced with heavy-duty solid brass.

Even more rare, this plate is graded "VG," or very good condition.

The plate's first owner was a founding member of AAA

This particular plate was issued to prominent Chicago lawyer and art collector Arthur Jerome Eddy, who in 1900 became the first person in Chicago to receive a license badge for a motor vehicle. Before plates were distributed, license badges, meant to go on drivers' coats, were issued to drivers as a way to tax city residents for funding road projects, Donley said.

Eddy was an early adopter of automobiles, Donley said. He set an auto distance record in 1901 by driving 2,900 miles from Chicago to Boston and back over two months, The New York Times reported. He even published a book about it the following year — one of several he authored — titled Two Thousand Miles On An Automobile.

Eddy also helped found the Chicago Motor Club in 1902, to advocate for driver rights and promote safe vehicles and roads. That club has since evolved into the American Automobile Association (AAA). He's also credited with putting Chicago on the map of the modern art world, according to auctioneers, by drawing interest to the Art Institute of Chicago.

More recently, this plate belonged to Lee Hartung, a well-known collector of motor vehicles, who died in 2011. Much of his personal collection was auctioned off years ago but, Donley said, when his partner was recently preparing to sell their house, she found a stash of more auto memorabilia — including the No.1 plate.

Donley estimated the plate will sell for around $4,000 to $6,000 at the auction, which ends on Sunday. But the intrigue Donley said it has garnered could hike up the bids. The auctioneer took the plate to a license plate show over the weekend in Wauconda, Ill., where he said the item attracted collectors from out of state to see the plate and gauge its authenticity.

"There's a lot of interest in this," Donley said.

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