It’s a festive-looking thing, with an ornate and polished oaken cabinet squatting on copper-flashed cast iron legs.
Red, yellow, black, and green lithograph tabs adorn the rim of a wheel positioned at the top of the cabinet. Your nickels go to the top. If they come back with friends, there’s a cup on the left for them. The hefty crank to the right decides it all.
Then there’s the music box that makes this circa-1902 Watling ‘Puck’ 5-cent slot machine more valuable than most. That, and the backstory.
Having escaped the swinging axes and sledgehammers that came for its kind during Prohibition, this ancestor of modern sensory-overloading slot machines was once owned by Eddie Bohns, a sparring partner of boxing legend Jack Dempsey.
At 63 inches tall, by 28, by 17, it would look good in your den.
Rare Watling ‘Puck’ 5-cent slot machine is up for auction this month
Photo credit: Morphy Auctions
From its catalog listing:
“For 65 years, Bohns presided over North Denver’s legendary Pig ‘N Whistle, a restaurant and sports bar that attracted scores of professional athletes and other celebrities, including Roy Rogers, the Dorsey brothers, and astronaut Wally Schirra.”
“The Puck machine to be auctioned features a quartered-oak cabinet with all original castings, a lithographed Puck wheel, and the original music feature. In impeccable condition …”
Minimum bid: $15,000. Count your nickels, and bring extra. At auction from May 4-6, it’s expected to fetch between $30-50,000…or so hopes Tom Tolworthy, the chief executive officer of the Morphy Auctions site that offers the piece through in-person, online, and phone platforms.
In the nichey but vibrant realm of gambling nostalgia, the Watling Puck is a find – like many art pieces – because it endures and tells a story. Upright slot machines remain the most coveted.
“They’re extremely popular,” Tolworthy told PlayUSA.
“The majority of the upright slot machines – which were the predecessors to three-reel slot machines – were made around the turn of the [20th] century and a lot of them were destroyed during Prohibition. The survivors. They’re very valuable, and there’s a few around. I’m a collector myself.”
“There’s a whole Coin Operated Collectors Association and there’s a strong following of people that collect slot machines, gambling memorabilia, a huge, huge group,” continued Tolworthy, who owns five vintage upright slot machines.
Collectors seem to target slots that actually paid out winnings. But they’re also fond of so-called trade stimulators, which would reward winners with additional items of something they wanted to buy.
“The [Watling Puck] is a little bit rarer than most in the fact that it plays music as well. So when you put the coins in and you crank the wheel, it also gives you a tune for your money,” he continued.
“It makes it a little bit more special. There’s a guy in New Jersey, a collector, he only collects the slot machines to play music.”
Functionality also stimulates bidding. But if the machines don’t work, a cottage industry has sprung up to refurbish them.
Rare double slot machine sold in 2016 for nearly a half-million dollars
There is no lost Da Vinci of antique slot machines, Tolworthy said. The right piece and right buyer must collide to create a jackpot sale.
Such was the case for a Venus double slot machine sold by Morphy Auctions in 2016.
“Why would they build one with two slot machines?,” Tolworthy posited.
“Because you could run two slot machines with one license. So the slot machine companies made doubles and triples. So we sold one. That was a double called Venus. The glass on the front had a very pretty-looking, half-dressed young lady on it. And it had music and it was the only one known with music.”
It sold for $420,000.
How did 20th-century slot machines capture the public’s imagination?
While modern slot machines are video marvels that process digital transactions, models like the Puck generally accepted nickels — quarters for the big spenders.
Slot enthusiasts now can contort themselves into an endless gesticulation of button-punching and tapping, but as Tolworthy explains, the act of gambling on a slot machine before the Titanic sank was a more staid endeavor.
“You put the coins in. You’re betting colors on the wheel. You have six coin slots. And, so, you can play all six of them and you’ll win every time or you pick the colors you want to play.”
Photo credit: Morphy Auctions
“And there’s different odds, depending on how many colors are on the wheel. So once you put your nickels in the top, you push that lever on the side. That loads the nickels into the mechanism. Then you crank the handle. It spins. And if you happen to hit that color that you bet on, then you will get 2-to-1 or a 3-to-1 or 10-to-1 return.”
A player could win every time by plugging change into every coin slot. But the rush of a win wouldn’t be very lucrative.
“You’ll win every time, but you’re more likely to get a 2-for-1 to hit,” he explained.
“The other way you’re not going to make a lot of money.”
The only other true slot machine being offered this week at Morphy Auctions is a “rare and very early (pre-1902) version of Schiemer-Yates 5-cent Musical Cupid upright slot Machine” (right), which similarly features a music box and is also estimated to fetch between $30-50,000.
Gambling was even a part of the cigar-buying experience in a bygone era
Trade simulators are also popular items. Built from the late 1800s through the 1950s, they were ubiquitous in tobacconist shops.
With a turn of the wheel, aficionados purchasing their afternoon puff could parlay a nickel into ten Old Havanas.
“They’re generally poker machines. You put a coin in, these reels spin, and depending on the poker hand you get, there’s a card or a marquee attached to the machine that tells you how many cigars you would win.”
“So most of them were in cigar stores. So if you put your nickel into the trade stimulator, flip the wheel, you were guaranteed to get one cigar for your nickel. But you could win two, you could win five, you could win 10.”
The cigars didn’t actually pop out of the trade simulators. They weren’t vending machines. But the winnings could be redeemed at the counter.
The most sought after, as expected, are the older models made of wood and cast iron before aluminum became the norm in the late 1930s.
Tolworthy has collected gambling memorabilia for 40 years and said there is no certain demographic the pieces attract.
As expected, there are persons who once worked in the industry, and just those hunters in search of novelties like the vintage Coca-Cola pieces, also on sale at Morphy Auctions this week.
Tolworthy said he’d not seen any celebrity collectors, and most high-end buyers prefer anonymity.
“A guy in Ohio, he has an extensive collection and he’s a tow truck driver for the department of transportation for the state of Ohio,” he said.
“They come from everywhere. It’s just how they got their interest. Probably they might have gone to an auction and saw one, or they went to somebody else’s house for another reason they saw the collection.”
And then had to give it a spin.