The greatest arcade auction ever is happening this weekend

Maybe you read about this auction in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago. Or maybe you saw the story at CNN. Or the short announcement about it on the Today Show.

In any case, it’s believed to be the largest ever collection of arcade and pinball machines, which has been located in Banning, California for the past several years. The owner of the Museum of Pinball spent a lot of time and money assembling and repairing the collection but was only able to open it a few weekends out of the year. When the pandemic hit, that was really the last straw.

Even before the pandemic, the museum was open only about nine days a year and mainly hosted events, averaging about 9,000 visitors annually, Mr. Weeks said. Most of those visitors paid $80 for an all-day pass or $150 for a weekend pass, which he said allowed visitors to play an unlimited number of games. No coins necessary.

But the museum had been losing money, Mr. Weeks, 58, said, and he decided to lease the 18-acre site to a cannabis farm. Finding a new home for the museum proved to be difficult, and a plan to move the museum to Palm Springs — about 20 minutes from Banning — was derailed because of its cost and expected delays, he said.

The plan was to move the Museum to an empty building that had once housed a newspaper in Palm Springs. It was a great potential site but it turned out it would have taken as long as six months just to remove the old printing press from the building. Then it would have taken many more months to get the site ready for games and people. In the end, the owner couldn’t keep the collection afloat long enough to make the move happen so everything went to the auction block.

Years ago there were specialized auctions all over the country that sold primarily arcade games and pinball machines. Now there are relatively few such auction houses left. One of those, Captain’s Auction Warehouse, happens to be in Orange County, only a couple of hours away from the Museum of Pinball. So they are the ones auctioning all of this stuff off over two weekends. Here’s a local news interview with the owner of the auction house.

The first half of the auction already took place on the weekend of Sep. 10-12. The remainder of the items are being auction off this weekend. In fact, the auction started up again about an hour ago (as I write this).

For the collectors who are into this particular hobby, what has been most striking about this auction is the prices. Perhaps it’s all of those government stimulus checks or perhaps it’s just the unusual amount of national media attention this auction has received (Captain’s auction has been holding about 10 auctions a year for many years, none of which received CNN coverage). Whatever the case, the prices at this auction have been astounding. Most are selling at about double or triple the recent sale values among collectors. In the case of arcade games, that means some fairly common games from the early 1980s that might normally go for $1,000 each are selling for $3,000 to $5,000. Some rare games are selling at unheard of prices of $15,000 or more.

The bottom line is a pretty big bottom line for the owner. Over the two weekends he’s probably going to make $5 million dollars selling off the collection and the auction house will likely make another million for their efforts.

I visited the site a few times when it was open and it really was spectacular. If you have any memory from the 70s or 80s of being a kid with a pocket full of quarters in an arcade, this place really was the ultimate reminder of that era.

So if you’ve ever wanted to own your own game or pinball machine, my advice is that this auction is probably not the moment to do that unless you have unlimited funds. Still, it’s fun to watch people who aren’t members of congress spending money like drunken sailors. If you’re interested, you can watch the rest of the auction right here by clicking on “Click Here to Bid Live Now.” And if you do want to bid it’s not too late. You’ll need to create an account with Captain’s Auction and then ask to become a registered bidder.

It’s good the games are going to people who want them but it’s too bad the Museum is gone. It really was a pretty spectacular collection while it lasted. This 20 minute video offers a walking tour of the entire site circa 2019.

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