In Delaware, 9 Nets $185,000

August 07, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

REHOBOTH BEACH, DEL. — An article in the Sunday Sun incorrectly reported the length of time a Delaware tag holder has before the tag number reverts to the state. Tag owners have 30 days to transfer the registration, but a tag number does not revert to the state until one year and one day after the registration has expired, according to Steve Twilley, community relations officer in the Department of Public Safety.

5) The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. -- Everybody knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The auction-house owner compared it to the Hope diamond. The auctioneer said it was the most costly piece of personal property he'd ever sold.

And when Delaware license tag No. 9 was sold for $185,000 yesterday afternoon, a crowd of 500 exploded into applause at the Rehoboth Beach convention center.


The triumphant bidder was Anthony Fusco, a shopping center developer from Wilmington who bought the tag for his wife.

"I bought it for her -- to put on her car," said Mr. Fusco, who later allowed how he would put it on his Mercedes 400SE until his wife buys a new vehicle. "She buys a new car, I'll transfer it over," he said.

"I didn't really intend to bid that much, but you start bidding, you want something, you can afford it -- you keep going."

Mr. Fusco, who outbid at least five others, said after the auction he planned to surprise his wife by putting the tag on the breakfast table today.

"I'm glad I got it," said Mr. Fusco. "You want to be the winner, not the loser. When you buy a tag, it belongs to you forever."

That happens because of the way Delaware's car-registration system works. Plate numbers are issued in numerical order, and the number on the plate is the actual registration number. The governor of Delaware gets plate No. 1, the lieutenant governor gets No. 2 and the secretary of state gets No. 3. The rest of the numbers are privately held, said Steve Twilley, a spokesman for the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles.

Mr. Twilley emphasized that yesterday's auction was a private matter and that the state received no part of the $185,000 price.

"The DMV has no position or role in this until the registration is transferred," Mr. Twilley said. "A tag that's sold for $200,000 is worth exactly $20 to the state. That's the annual registration fee."

Unlike Maryland, which went to a three-letter, three-digit system in 1976, Delaware has not altered its numerical sequence since the 1920s. Tags can be transferred and are passed down through families. A great deal of prestige attaches to low numbers, even those of two and three digits.

Both Mr. Fusco and one of the other bidders hold several low-digit tags in their families.

Mr. Fusco has at least six three-digit tags among himself and his family, and he reeled off the owners of most of the tags between No. 4 and No. 10 during an interview.

Mr. Fusco said he had planned to go as high as $125,000 -- yesterday's bidding opened at $100,000. But when the bidding went past that, he decided to keep going. Three telephone bidders and at least three more on the floor, including Mr. Fusco, were active.

The last bidder on the floor to drop out was Ernie Davison, a contractor from Dover who went up to $184,000.

"I came here to get the 9, but that didn't work out," said Mr. Davison, who still paid $89,000 yesterday for two other low-number tags -- Nos. 123 and 124.

"I was crazy to go over $150,000. That other man wasn't going to stop. He would've gone to a quarter of a million. I'd rather have had the 9, but you gotta stop sometime. It's probably worth a quarter of a million, because you'll never see another one."

Two of the telephone bidders, who had representatives on the floor, dropped out well before the final bids. But one stayed on the line up to $185,000, said auctioneer William Emmert.

"The bidder went back to the phone, and the guy just hung up," he said. The telephone bidders' names were not disclosed.

"It was great," Mr. Emmert said of the 25-minute bidding war. "It's the highest a tag has ever sold." He would not divulge how much of a commission would be given to the auctioneers, but said the general fee was from 7 percent to 10 percent.

Until recently, the coveted tag No. 9 had been on a 1991 Buick, part of the estate of Elva Smith, the widow of J. G. Smith, a former state highway commissioner.

"He was very politically powerful in the 1930s and 1940s," said Jay Stein, owner of Stuart Kingston Inc. His firm and William Emmert Auction Associates put on the auction, which included jewelry and personal effects from several estates.

Mr. Stein said that the plate belonged to Mr. Smith's widow, who died in March. The four heirs were unable to agree on a price for the plate (one offered $60,000 but the others weren't satisfied with that), so they decided to put it up for auction.

Mr. Stein, whose car has plate number No. 114 (he inherited it from his father), was elated by the sale price.

"We may never see it again in your lifetime," he said of the chance to buy a one-digit plate. "I know it sounds crazy."

The winning bidder, Mr. Fusco, now has 30 days to change the registration over to his (or his wife's) name, said Mr. Twilley. After 30 days, the number will revert to the state if no transfer occurs.

That's unlikely to happen.

Mr. Fusco not only plans to keep the tag, but is already thinking of which child or grandchild should inherit it.

"I'll leave it to one of my children," he said yesterday afternoon. "But if I ever have to sell, I'll get an auctioneer."

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