Colorado Will Hold Its First Vanity-Plate Auction

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in our August 14, 2014, print edition. On August 15, an agency representing the auction said the details had changed and sent us the following note. "Earlier this week, we switched up the format of the auction: the live event is postponed until January, and we will run an online auction of 13 exclusive plates from August 21-September 2. (Those plates are listed below.) 5280, GOLFER and BRONCO will be available at the live auction in January. 2FAST4U, DREAMER, FAITH, FLYFISH, HIOSLVR, JALISCO, MICKEY, SMILE, SPARKY, SPOILED, SUPRMAN, SWEET, WOLF."

You may not be able to get a vanity license plate in Colorado that reads 420, or one that says 69ME, but you might get lucky if 13 is your lucky number. It certainly could be for the state. On August 21, Colorado will auction off those spooky digits on a vanity license plate, along with BRONCO, GOLFER and 5280, as part of its very first Colorado Plates Auction, which will be held at the History Colorado Center and online.

After that, the state's License Plate Auction Group will continue to auction off valuable and high-demand plates by theme. In a few months, for instance, it will offer Halloween-related words, such as ZOMBIE and FANTASM, as well as the terms that have been the most requested by motorists, including FLYFISH, SWEEET and SPOILED.

See also: Top twenty rejected Colorado vanity license plates, sex fiend edition

The state also plans to sell numbers from 1 to 99 and letters from A to Z, along with two-letter combinations. Neither option has been available since the late 1970s.

The goal of the program -- which was created by state law in 2011 but has taken some time to put together -- is to raise money for nonprofit organizations that specialize in helping people get access to federal benefits like Social Security disability insurance, a process that can be very challenging.

"It's estimated that there are 80,000 Coloradans who can get federal aid who don't," says Marty Zimmerman of Zim Consulting, which is running the auction for the state. "But if they could, it would mean that we as Coloradans wouldn't have to pay for those benefits with our tax money."

The first $1.5 million raised by the auction will be given to the state's Disability-Benefit Support Contract Committee (also created by the 2011 law), which will in turn donate to charities. The state gets to keep the next $2 million. But after that, additional monies that come in will be turned over to charity groups.

Other states, including Delaware, Massachusetts and Texas, have made millions of dollars auctioning off plates: Texas sold the word FERRARI for $15,000 in 2011, while Delaware banked $675,000 for the number 11.

And it's those low-digit plates that seem to be particularly appealing to collectors, says Zimmerman, who has researched auctions in other states. That's why the number 13 will be important. In Colorado, the numbers 7 and 18 have particular importance to football fans as well -- and they will probably be part of a future auction.

"We are trying to build a market for this," Zimmerman says, explaining that the plates can be seen as assets that appreciate in value. Motorists who spend $25,000 get to keep the plates for 25 years, while those who pay $50,000 get to keep them for fifty years. Big spenders of $100,000 or more can keep the plates for 100 years.

That means that the owners can pass them on to their kids. Or, when they're done with a certain plate, they can return it to the state, which will re-auction the plate and give 75 percent of the proceeds to the owner. So if someone spends $10,000 for BRONCOS, then surrenders it, and the state auctions it again for $20,000, the owner makes $7,500. Not a bad little profit.

"The challenge, however, is that we have never done this before, so we don't know how much we will raise," Zimmerman says. The agency has a list of more than 10,000 plates from which it can draw; most are currently not taken because they've been sitting in a dustbin of retired combinations. Although Colorado has issued vanity plates for decades, it retired them when they expired or weren't renewed.

That meant that no one else could obtain them, even if the original owners weren't using them anymore. BRONCO, for example, has probably been out of circulation since the 1960s. The number 13 hasn't been seen on the road since the '70s.

And in a year or two, Zimmerman says, the state may even authorize symbols -- like #, @ and $ -- as well.

Sadly, Zimmerman won't be able to auction off plates from the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles' roster of banned combos -- a list that includes more than 3,000 attempts, like ILVTOFU, GTSOME, 2CREAM4, 69ME, WHIPME, 2URANUS, SUKDIK, POT, 4HEMP, 4TWENTY and SMOKPOT.

Those last few could probably raise a ton of money now that marijuana is legal in Colorado. But for now, Zimmerman doesn't plan to sell any plates that violate the DMV's rules, which state that the agency can turn down any vanity plates that are "offensive to the general public" or "misleading."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes