The renowned ancient Greek inventor Hero is believed to have created the first vending machine when he designed an urn that automatically dispensed holy water when you put in a coin.

Flash forward more than two millennia: in late 19th-century London, vending machines were dispensing postcards, and machines selling Tutti-Fruiti gum sprang up on elevated New York subway stations in 1888.

"The concept of making something coin-operated was magic for people one hundred years ago," says Ken Rubin, a coin-op machine collector and historian in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You could get something in the middle of the night. It was the first 24-7 kind of service."

Collectors Flip for Vintage Coin-Op Machines

Coin-operated machines offered consumers suntan oil, combs, stamps, cigars, books -- and a few even dispensed a jolt of electricity just for a pick-me-up.

Penny arcades provided consumers with all sorts of mechanical entertainment under one roof, while Horn & Hardart opened a coin-operated restaurant, or automat, that drew in customers with the slogan "Less Work for Mother."

"They are wonderful, self-contained systems," Rubin said. "You put in a coin; the machine does something, and gives something back to you."

Coin-operated machine collectors are people who love the sound of an old-time pinball machine, who hear music in the clicking gears of a vintage candy dispenser, or who long for the days when the slots paid off with a clanking shower of coins instead of a slip of paper.

"A lot of Baby Boomers are collecting all kinds of stuff that they remember as kids," says Dan Davids, a Los Angeles resident who serves as treasurer of the Coin Operated Collectors Association. "They're reliving the past."

"You get some form of enjoyment," Davids said of coin-op machine collecting. "It brings you back to a certain place in time. You meet a lot of wonderful people. I can say I have friends in every state."

Chad Boekelheide, a collector in Northville, S.D., said his grandfather had a slot machine in his basement and used to give Boekelheide and his brother nickels so they could play with it.

"Years later, I decided it would be neat to find an old slot machine for myself," he said in an email. "One thing led to another and now my house is full of coin-op machines!"

Boekelheide said he likes the vintage vending machines because they are meant to be used, unlike many other antiques that are just admired but not touched.

"I like being able to play the machines," he said.

As with any type of antique collecting, research is paramount, and it's important to work with reputable dealers. Boekelheide said he bought every book he could find on vintage coin-operated machines and made contact with other collectors.

Prices can vary, of course, given the age, condition and rarity of the device in question.

Vintage gumball machines can go for $100 to $200 and antique mechanical slot machines -- the kind that actually pay off in coins, not receipts -- sell for $1,000 and up.

Now if you want to spend some serious coin, then you may be interested in a Caille Roulette gambling machine. Rubin, who owns a Caille, said one of them sold for just shy of $250,000 last year.

Kevin Greco, who co-promotes the twice-yearly Chicagoland Antique Advertising, Slot-Machine & Jukebox Show with Bob Traynoff, said many collectors start off small. "You can go in at a certain level, buying one or two items a year," he said. "You get a feel for what you want."

Davids said the simplest advice for the novice collector is to buy a machine that works, unless you have the knowledge to fix it or know someone who can. Many people have purchased what they thought were bargains, he said, only to pay more money than they wanted to in the end.

Boekelheide said most coin-operated machines command a premium if they are in original condition. Restoration can actually decrease the value of the machine.

"Serious collectors want items that have not been restored," he said. "In many instances, machines can be worth twice as much in their original condition."

The only exception to the restoration rule, he said, is jukeboxes, as it is usually necessary to do some kind of work on them to improve the sound quality.

There's one thing to keep in mind about antique slot machines in particular: State regulations regarding ownership of the one-arm bandits need to be checked, as laws vary from state to state.

Rubin said the coin-op machines have been wonderful investments over the years and the best pieces in each category -- gambling, music, vending -- will always appreciate greatly.

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