Rare find amid US town's Old West kitsch
The Gypsy sat for decades in a restaurant amid the Old West kitsch that fills this former gold rush town, her unblinking gaze greeting the tourists who shuffled in from the creaking wooden sidewalk outside.
Some mistook her for Zoltar, the fortune-telling machine featured in the Tom Hanks movie, Big. Others took one look at those piercing eyes and got the heebie-jeebies so bad they couldn't get away fast enough.
But until a few years ago, nobody, not even her owner, knew the nonfunctioning machine gathering dust in Bob's Place was an undiscovered treasure sitting in plain sight in this ghost town-turned-themed tourist attraction.
The 100-year-old fortune teller was an extremely rare find. Instead of dispensing a card like Zoltar, the Gypsy would actually speak your fortune from a hidden record player. When you dropped a nickel in the slot, her eyes would flash, her teeth would chatter and her voice would come floating from a tube extending out of the eight-foot-tall box.
Word got out when the Montana Heritage Commission began restoring the Gypsy more than five years ago, and collectors realised the machine was one of two or three "verbal" fortune tellers left in the world.
One of those collectors, magician David Copperfield, said he thinks she is even rarer than that.
"I think it's only one of one," Copperfield said in a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Copperfield wanted the Gypsy to be the crown jewel in his collection of turn-of the century penny arcade games. It would occupy a place of pride among the magician's mechanised Yacht Race, Temple of Mystery and various machines that tested a person's strength.
Copperfield acknowledged approaching the curators about buying the Gypsy a few years ago but declined to say what he offered. Janna Norby, the Montana Heritage Commission curator who received the call from Copperfield's assistant, said it was in the ballpark of US$2 million (NZ$2.4m), along with a proposal to replace it with another fortune-telling machine. On top of that, he pledged to promote Virginia City in advertisements.
But Heritage commission curators, representing the Gypsy's owner — the state of Montana — rejected the idea, saying cashing in on this piece of history would be akin to selling their soul.
"If we start selling our collection for money, what do we have?" said Norby, the commission's former curator of collections.
The commission's acting director, Marilyn Ross echoed Norby's sentiments: "That is not something we would ever consider, selling off these antiques."
That dismissal has set collectors grumbling. Theo Holstein, a California collector and renovator of such machines, said he thinks the Gypsy is wasted in Virginia City and should be placed in a private collection for proper care. He said he is trying to gather investors to make a US$3 million (NZ$3.6m) bid that would top Copperfield's offer.
"They don't have any idea what they have. It's like they have the world's best diamond and they just pulled it out of their mineshaft," Holstein said. "It's good that it's there and it survived, but now it really needs to be part of the world."
Holstein said he wouldn't be surprised in the machine ultimately sold for US$10m or more. Copperfield also said he is still interested in purchasing it.
That could put pressure on the state, which, like the rest of the nation, is facing hard fiscal times. Montana's budget is in the black, but keeping the effects of the recession at arm's length has meant deep budget cuts.
Those cuts have hit the Montana Heritage Commission particularly hard. Just weeks after Norby spoke to the AP, her position and three others were eliminated as part of a larger reorganisation to cut US$400,000 from the commission's budget, Ross said.
The state agency that oversees the commission, meanwhile, is not so quick to reject the idea of selling the Gypsy. Department of Commerce deputy director Andrew Poole said he has not seen any offers in writing, and if one were made, it would go through a bid process that includes the scrutiny of the commission and input from the public.
The state inherited the Gypsy in 1998 when it paid US$6.5m to buy nearly 250 buildings and their contents in Virginia City and nearby Nevada City from the son of Charles Bovey. The Montana collector spent years buying up the buildings to preserve the two crumbling ghost towns and he stocked them with his ever-growing collection of antique games, music machines and oddities.
Bill Peterson, the heritage commission's former curator of interpretation, said the collection includes hundreds of thousands of items, so many that curators are still discovering them.
The Gypsy was made sometime around 1906 by the Mills Novelty Co. In restoring her, the curators either replaced or repaired frayed, worn or broken parts with exact replicas. When they couldn't find replicas or period materials, they didn't replace the parts.
"We don't want to make her anything that she wasn't," Norby said.
In 2008, they installed the Gypsy as the centerpiece of the Gypsy Arcade amid the ancient wooden buildings of Virginia City's main street. Calliope music spills out into the street, beckoning the tens of thousands of visitors to enter and view the stereoscopes, shock tests, tests of strength, fortune telling machines and love letter machines. The Gypsy presides over the menagerie in the rear, ropes keeping visitors at a distance.
All of that care in restoring, preserving and displaying the Gypsy causes state curators to reject Holstein's argument that the machine should be removed from Virginia City and placed in a private collection.
"A lot of these collectors, they come and say the same thing: 'Why is this out in the public? Why don't you just take the money and have a collector restore it the way it should be restored and have it in his private collection?' Well, nobody would ever see it," said Peterson, whose position also was eliminated in the cutbacks.