A pinball museum in Banning, Calif., closed, and its 1100 game cabinets are up for auction in Sept.
I suspect this event will push the home pinball hobby over the edge -- it was teetering -- into the sphere occupied by comic book, sports memorabilia, and automobile collecting.
The Boom generation, flush with capital and a bent for nostalgia, did its utmost to grow their fandoms into industries. This turned old-school collectors into headshaking cynics, but who needs those dinosaurs. It also meant their children couldn't experience collecting as fun; they've been flippers and brokers from the start, but they never knew any different. No harm, no foul.
Pinball collectors remind me of paper collectors in their painstaking attention to the condition and vintage qualities of every inch and corner of an item. Though they're better than toy collectors in that they intend to play with the goods.
Pinball collectors are like car collectors in their need for an additional garage or warehouse, because an acid-free longbox or polyethylene binder pocket won't do in their case. Car and pinball collectors are similar in their religious insistence on original or OEM parts where possible, though they're divided about modifications (I don't get Volkswagen enthusiasts who mod Karmann Ghias -- isn't a perfect design enough?!).
Pinball machines come equipped with rules cards, that thing only oddballs read about the game's objectives and happenings. I saw a fellow the other day who sought an original rules card to replace the ratty one in his machine. Dude, said some, it's a piece of paper; type one yourself. Nope, said the dude, he'll wait for someone to scrap their machine for parts, including the rules card.
Pinball and car collectors similarly like to get their hands dirty (unless they can afford not to), and restoration projects abound.
Pinball as a pastime died twice. First in the '30s when the machines were classified like slot machines. Then lawmakers learned pinball is a skill game in the '70s, and it boomed (the Ken Russell movie of Pete Townshend's opera about a pinball champion helped). Then video games came along, which occupy less floor space, and take in more money while costing less in maintenance.
For about 20 years, there was *one* pinball manufacturer afloat. Then one startup after another discovered that arcades and convenience stores were no longer the places that wanted pinball machines, but the homes of those capitalist Boomers. Pinball enjoys another renaissance among players and collectors, if not retailers.
Demand for pinball machines is outpacing supply. Only those with too much capital can afford five figures for the newest products, while prices escalate for older models.
Next month's museum auction will send prices rocketing across the board. The hardcore collectors will bid on pieces they don't have yet. People who want to start in the hobby or just want one to play will compete for the rest. Couple this with a 17% auctioneer's markup, and the fact that pinball machines only appreciate in value, and this "one time only" event is likely to affect the market forever.