Players in the penny arcade

In a modern Sydney apartment with views of the Pacific Ocean sits a collection that could have belonged to Coney Island or Blackpool Pier. Paul Hickey is a serious collector of vintage amusement arcade machines, some dating back to the 19th century, though most fit into the between-the-wars period.

In a modern Sydney apartment with views of the Pacific Ocean sits a collection that could have belonged to Coney Island or Blackpool Pier. Paul Hickey is a serious collector of vintage amusement arcade machines, some dating back to the 19th century, though most fit into the between-the-wars period.

Hickey, who runs a medical bookshop by day, is in his mid-40s, so grey eyebrows are often raised by sixtysomethings when he bids at auctions. "I'd be classed as a young collector," he says of this predominately elderly male domain.

Hickey traces his fascination for these machines to when he was growing up in London and taken on holidays to seaside resorts such as Brighton. Here antiquities could be found in the darker sections of old amusement arcades, some still located on the end of the pier. He would happily spend all day playing these machines, and bought his first one at a London auction in 1987 when he was 18, spending the not-inconsiderable sum of £400.

Arcade machines are now an established auction market, especially in Britain and the US. Paul's wonderful "What the Butler Saw" mutoscope, circa 1905, is typical of the more desirable specimens.

It was made by the International Mutoscope Reel Company of New York and probably sold to an English arcade owner before being passed on to Luna Park in Sydney. It was sold at the Luna Park auction in 1981 then passed through several hands before Hickey picked it up in 2002.

It's now worth about $9000, considerably more if he wants to sell it overseas. "That's where the real collectors are," he says.

In case you're interested, what the butler saw, and what thousands of patrons have seen by placing in a penny and turning a handle, is a French lady dancing wearing a smile and little else.

There are many who love these machines. David Copperfield, the celebrity magician who allegedly picked up the bulk of the Harry Houdini memorabilia sold in February at Lawsons in Sydney, also collects them.

Hickey has another mutoscope, a later 1920s tin-type showing scenes from an unknown boxing match.

These are worth a lot less than naughty French ladies.

There are several themes for antique arcade games, including fortune-teller machines, tests of strength and bravery and games of chance and skill.

See the online gallery for photos and approximate values.

Typical prices range from $1000 to $5000, depending on age and rarity.

On the upper limit is the "Electricity is Life" machine, designed to test how much electric current the player can tolerate before releasing the grip. Despite the promise "no shock, no danger", these machines were banned and are very rare.

Another strength tester from Hickey's collection, made in Britain circa 1899, turned up on a farm in South Australia and was picked up quite cheaply. It's now worth about $3000.

One game, known as The Payramid overseas, had its name changed to The Rivoli when imported to Australia, probably to avoid it being banned as a game of chance.

Real games of chance, including early poker machines, are still classified as illegal except in licensed premises.

Some private collectors have these machines but won't admit it, even if the chances of a 6am raid by the gaming squad are unlikely.

While the total collection has considerable value, Paul Hickey says most individual items haven't appreciated hugely in Australia but would fetch a lot more if sold overseas where prices are about double.

He has previously bought and sold items overseas but shipping costs and GST can make this prohibitive.

If he ever decides to sell the lot, a one-owner auction usually results in higher total results.

Related Articles