Every week, we have something on our floor that draws a lot of attention prior to our Saturday auctions. Last week, it was an impressive collection of early ‘coin-ops,’ or coin-operated toys, games and machines. The floor was filled with early 1900s gum vending machines, 1930s Mills slot machines, porcelain double-sided gas station signs, bubble gum machines from the 1920s and 1930s, mechanical banks and even vintage jukeboxes. It was a trip down memory lane for some of our older patrons, and we saw a lot of interest from younger bidders looking to decorate their homes and apartments.
As with many items we auction, coin-ops have a fascinating history. The first coin-operated vending machines were introduced in London in the 1880s, and by 1907, the first coin-operated gumball machines were dispensing round, candy-coated gumballs. During Prohibition, some of these gumball machines, such as the Hawkeye, were outlawed, because on every 10th pull of its lever, a bell would ring and the person would get his penny back. Crazy to think that counted as gambling, but true.
Piggy banks and mechanical banks also fall under the coin-op category. Some of the more collectible piggy banks include those made by American Bisque Company (ABC), Belleek, and Hubley, while bidders are paying a pretty penny for mechanical banks made by J. & E, Stevens, Shepard Hardware Company and Kyser & Rex.
Mechanical banks range in design from cash registers and slot machines to animals, trees, political figures, clowns, cars, planes and even flying saucers. Coin-operated mechanical banks from the late 1800s were often made of diecast iron or wood. In the 1920s, many were produced with lithographed or painted tin.
Lucky for our consignor, he bought many of his coin-op pieces when they were worth a fraction of their value today. The “stars” of his collection were two jukeboxes, which he paid pennies on the dollar for. Things heated up among online and live bidders when they both came up for auction. The vintage Rock-Ola stereophonic jukebox sold for $1,800, while a 1970s Wurlitzer 1050 45rpm jukebox realized $1,320.
My favorite piece was the 1905 Calamity football cast iron mechanical bank that sold for $840. Early cast iron football toys have always had my interest as it’s fascinating how much the game has changed in the toy business and in the game of football!
Today’s market for antique and vintage coin-ops is very strong for the seller as well as the buyer. As a buyer, you may pay a little more today, but if past values hold true and you are buying for the long-term investment, the value should climb, especially since coin-ops are becoming rarer each day. Buyers are scooping them up and hanging onto them, or they are investing money to restore them to their former glory and show them off.
I read recently that the U.S. Mint may stop producing pennies, and I would not be surprised if coins are eliminated from our currency at some point in the future. This would make coin-ops even more collectible. So, whether you’re selling or buying, coin-ops could pay off big time for you in the future!
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale.