Hitting the jackpot with antique slots

A Caille Triplet musical upright realized $180,000 in January 2020 at Witherell’s. Photo courtesy of Witherell’s and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Slot machines used to be fun to operate with mechanical levers you pulled, earning them the nickname of one-armed bandits. Modern versions in casinos are a push-button style and don’t offer the joy of seeing piles of coins spill out when one hits a payout. Instead, the money tally ticks up and down on a digital display. Boring!

Antique slot machines, however, are beautifully made, often having plated metal finishes, elaborately carved wooden cabinets or cast-iron cases, and striking designs. The earliest ones date back to the late 1800s and they can be upright floor models or tabletop versions.

Australia is reported to have the highest number of poker slot machines in the world save for casino hotspots like Vegas, Macau and Monaco. Aussies affectionately call them pokies, while in England a slot machine is often called a fruit machine or a slot, and in Scotland, a puggy.

The Liberty Bell slot machine was made by Charles Fey, circa 1898, and is said to be the first three-wheel or dial payout machine. It is housed in a sheet metal and brass cabinet with a Liberty Bell pictured on each side. It sold for $225,000 in 2017. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania, routinely offers rare and fine slot machines in its twice-yearly coin-op auctions. Its coin-op specialist Tom Tolworthy said collectors of gaming and specifically slot machines can narrow their focus to a particular company: Mills, Watling, Caille, Pace, or collect broadly “one-arm bandit” slots or Victorian uprights.

“Mills was the most prolific manufacturer so those who collect by company usually choose Caille or Watling since their slots are not as readily available,” Tolworthy said. “Then there are variations: slot machines with a baseball theme, or ones that vend mints or gum, some that give you a fortune or have reserve jackpots. Slots with these variations are very popular with collectors.”

This rare and early Caille Peerless floor roulette nickel slot machine attained $255,000 in May 2015 at Morphy Auctions. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Slot machines came to be at the end of the 19th century and are still made today though antique machines are the most valuable to collectors, with prime examples fetching low six-figure sums. “Many of the older collectors focus on the earliest of machines, wooden upright slots machines and pay-out gaming devices,” Tolworthy said. “There are collectors that focus on mid-century slots – this has become very popular in the last 15 years.”

Bill Petrochuk, website editor for the Coin Op Collectors Association, said there are several factors that provide the “It Factor” for collectors. “I do think that most collectors have a favorite brand of their own although I personally have a variety of makers and styles in my personal collection,” he said. While Mills machines are prolific, their good looks and reliability for home use contribute to their appeal. “The Mills ‘High Tops’ have a great midcentury modern look, which is hot right now among both collectors and those that just want an old slot machine.”

Other collectors prefer the Jennings machines so that becomes their brand of choice. “Some of the Jennings have illuminated panels in the front. They put on a nice show, a real plus,” he said. “The Watling Rol-A-Top and Treasury machines have elaborate golden coins in the castings and that is quite a turn-on for most anyone. The early Caille machines had some of the most intricate and elaborate Art Nouveau/Art Deco styles ever made.”

This Jennings Prospector silver dollar console slot machine sold for $15,000 in April 2017 at Showtime Auction Services. Photo courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

Older machines also tend to be more popular with collectors due to gambling laws. A handful of states such as Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska, South Carolina and Tennessee prohibit personal ownership of any slot machine. Some states require owners to have a gaming license, which are not issued to individuals. About a dozen states allow individuals to own a slot machine, and the rest have variations, but most allow them provided they are older than 25 years. A bill was recently floated in Alabama to allow collectors to own pre-1960 slot machines for personal use.

Trade stimulators were a kind of gambling machine that became popular in the 1880s and could circumvent gambling laws at the time as well as stimulate business trade since they did not pay out in “cash.” Instead, winners received trade coupons, tokens or direct trade with the shop owner. “Most were found in cigar stores and saloons where the object was to award the patron with more than their ‘bet’ with additional trade,” Tolworthy said. “Many were nickel-operated and when played you would get at least one cigar for your nickel [or a few cigars for the really lucky ones].”

Machine size is often a factor for collectors. “The old turn-of-the-century floor wheel upright slots are much larger, scarcer and much more expensive in general, so you see few of them out there. You usually don’t see one in the home of collectors with limited space,” Petrochuk said.

A 5-cent Mills floor model roulette slot machine having nickel-plated iron castings, claw feet and a quartersawn oak cabinet made $235,500 in January 2017 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among the most striking machines of interest to collectors, Tolworthy said, are early Victorian uprights with music boxes and those with vending machines attached or built-in. “There are some that are referred to as ‘revamps’ where machines are brought back in and jackpots added, or conversions from one company to another,” he said. “It was not uncommon for some of the smaller distributors to buy machines from one of the manufacturers and convert it to their own by adding a nameplate or a function. Many of these variations are sought by collectors.”

Any machine with an added feature will usually command more interest, Petrochuk noted. “There are machines that use dice instead of spinning reels and they are highly sought after. The ones that have working payout roulette wheels with spinning balls command the highest prices, one sold for $300,000 a few years ago,” he said. “Like anything else, if it has a ‘WOW’ factor more people are going to desire it.”