The Hot Bid: Princess Doraldina fortune-tellers at Morphy’s

The unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune-telling machine. Morphy Auctions image

What you see: A Princess Doraldina fortune-teller machine. Morphy Auctions is offering the vintage coin-op and a second Princess Doraldina machine in the same auction. Both were made by the same Rochester, New York, company in 1928. The estimate on the machine shown above is $20,000 to $30,000. Its “sister,” shown below and featuring a mannequin clad in white, carries an estimate of $15,000 to $25,000.

The expert: Tom Tolworthy, chief executive officer at Morphy Auctions.

I have to admit, I’m more familiar with the Zoltar style of fortune-telling machine – the ones that feature a man wearing a turban. How popular was the Princess Doraldina style of machine in 1928? You’d see her before you’d see Zoltar. Most Zoltars are not that old. There were several manufacturers of gypsy fortune-telling machines. The Princess Doraldina machines were made between 1928 and 1930.

I’ve never met anyone named Doraldina. Do we know where the name comes from? Is it the name of the wife or daughter of a higher-up at the company that made the machine? Nobody really knows, but the company in Rochester, New York, that made it was named the Doraldina Fortune Telling Machine Co.

The restored Princess Doraldina fortune-telling machine. Morphy Auctions image

What do we know about the company? It was only in business for a couple of years, from what anybody knows. I wasn’t able to find much research on it. In the world of fortune-telling machines, it was late to the party.

What can we tell, just by looking, how hard these Princess Doraldina fortune-teller machines were to make? They were very advanced for the time, and the operation was really simple. Some fortune-tellers early on, such as Madame Zita, had clockwork mechanisms. The Princess Doraldina was electric. The body was covered with a nice outfit, the head was made out of wax, and it had an articulating hand. You’d put the coin in, and the hand would move over the cards in front of her. The mechanism would dispense a card with a fortune on it.

Both of these Princess Doraldina fortune-telling machines were made by the same company in the same year. The cabinets look different, and the Princess Doraldina mannequins are dressed differently. Are there other significant differences between the two? One is considered a restored machine, and one is considered original. The front of the restored one has a glass glue chip sign underneath the mannequin. The other one doesn’t have that, and never did. [It has a sign on top of its cabinet.] The glue chip sign could have been an add-on for an operator – when they bought it, the sign could have been an option. What you find with arcade machines is sometimes, variations are based on what materials the manufacturer had at the time. They might have run out of [the first run of] signs, or decided to make one without it.

Do both Princess Doraldina mannequins perform the same movements? Yes.

Do the differences in the cabinets and the outfits on the mannequins indicate that the Doraldina company was customizing the machines? With the restored one … many times, the clothing is moth-ridden and not usable, so it’s changed out with period clothing. My guess is whoever restored it added the clothing. The clothing on the unrestored one is original.

A close-up of the unrestored fortune-teller. Morphy Auctions image

Does the clothing on either or both the Princess Doraldina mannequins reflect styles that appeared in the company catalog? I believe the unrestored one was ordered that way. It could have been a distributor or a leasing agent who ordered the machines that way [mannequins with a specific outfit], so they could tell it was theirs. There were definitely other Doraldina machines. They might have wanted them to be identified differently.

We know that the unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune-teller machine was placed in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Do we know where the restored one might have been? We don’t. We’re sure it would have been in a penny arcade at the time, but there are no marks on it, and the person who consigned it doesn’t know the provenance.

And the company wouldn’t have been selling its coin-op machines privately in 1928? Yes, they did not sell to individuals. The machines only became collectible in the 1960s and 1970s.

Do both of the Princess Doraldina fortune-teller machines work? Both do work. The one that has the tin sign on top of it is in all-original condition. Collectors refer to it as a “survivor.” It has its original clothes, original lamp, top sign and paint, which is unbelievable. Original condition is more valuable because it’s impossible to find them like that.

If either or both of the Princess Doraldina machines didn’t work, would they be less interesting to collectors? No. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t bring as much. We’d certainly list it as not working, and we’d tell as much about it as possible so the person buying it knows they’re getting into. But not working doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.

What had to happen to allow the unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune-teller machine to survive so well? A lot of the time, the machines were placed on the boardwalk and brought in at night. This one sat inside a carousel in Seaside, New Jersey, that had an inner enclosure. It [also] had to sit in a warehouse for a long time, and while it might not have been in climate-controlled conditions, it wasn’t in damp conditions. If it had sat in a damp place for a long period of time, the mechanism would have rusted. It still works the way it did almost 90 years ago. That’s what makes it a good survivor.

What are these Princess Doraldina coin-op machines like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? They stand about 9 feet tall and they’re relatively large. They take up a 3-foot-by-3-foot footprint. The mannequin is the size of a 5-foot or a 5-foot-2 woman. She’s pretty life-like, and she’s wearing costume jewelry. In a world of arcade machines and Pac-man, it’s a very impressive-looking fortune-teller.

A close-up of the restored fortune-teller. Morphy Auctions image

Is there anything about how Princess Doraldina moves that doesn’t come across in a still photo? She has a bellows in her chest that makes it look like she’s breathing. It’s interesting to see the articulation of the movement in the chest as it simulates breathing.

And the breathing mechanism also moves Princess Doraldina’s hand? Yes. The coin triggers an electric motor, which triggers the cycle [of actions the mannequin performs]. She breathes, moves her hand, selects a card, and the card shoots out the front. The cards would be loaded randomly in a stack, and the electric movement would push the next card out.

Is Princess Doraldina the only fortune-telling machine of the time with a mannequin that seemed to breathe? It wasn’t the only one. There was another company in Cleveland that made a grandma fortune-teller that had a breathing motion, but Princess Doraldina was rather unique among fortune-tellers. A lot of the time, fortune-telling machines didn’t have figures, or they didn’t have the movement mechanisms of Princess Doraldina to make the experience complete.

Do the Princess Doraldina coin-op machines make noise? I understand that it wouldn’t have been heard over the noise of an arcade or a boardwalk, but still. There’s a very light mechanical noise as it dispenses the fortune card. It’s not much more noise than a fridge.

What sorts of fortunes does Princess Doraldina give out? What do the cards tend to say? They mostly had to do with happiness in life, live long and prosper. All positive, no negative fortunes. We have cards for both machines. We have some originals and some reproductions.

Do the two Princess Doraldina coin-op machines come from the same consigner? They are from two different consigners.

How unusual is it to have two Princess Doraldina coin-op machines in the same sale? It’s very unusual to have two in the same sale, and very unusual to have them in subsequent auctions, one after another. But that’s the nature of supply in the business of antiques. I’m not aware of an auction that ever sold two.

If the Princess Doraldina coin-op machines had been identical, would you have put them in the same sale? I wouldn’t. If it was our choice, I would have delayed the second [the restored example] to November. The consigner wants to sell and is not concerned about it bringing less because there’s two in the auction.

Why will these Princess Doraldina coin-op machines stick in your memory? Having two at a time will stick in my memory. Having one in original condition will stick in my memory. This is the nicest original-condition one I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many of them. Most that you find in original condition need to be restored or conserved. I think this one could move into somebody’s house after a little clean-up and a little oil in the mechanism.

How to bid: The unrestored Princess Doraldina fortune-teller with the red and black box is lot 1297 in the Coin-Op & Advertising sale at Morphy Auctions on April 25-26, 2020. The restored Princess Doraldina coin-op machine with a figure clad in white is lot 1196.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.