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Fortune Telling Machine Worth A Fortune

SCOTT SIMON, host: An antique fortune-telling machine called Gypsy could be worth nearly two million dollars. Bet she couldn't have predicted that. Gypsy's an old arcade machine, owned by the state of Montana and she's thought to be one of a kind.


SIMON: Her rarity is causing excitement in the world of antique collectors. John Papa collects and restores antique coin-operated machines and joins me from WAMC in Albany, New York.

Thanks very much for being with us.

JOHN PAPA: Oh, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: So what makes Gypsy extraordinary?

PAPA: Well, first of all, it's a very, very early example. Most fortune tellers that are around that are coin operated are from the '20s and '30s and maybe even in the '50s. This is somewhere between 1904 and 1907. And the other thing, it does something that 99 percent of other fortune tellers doesn't do. She actually talks to you from two Edison cylinder machines that're inside the mechanism.

There are two coins slots. One for male and one for female. And depending on where you put the coin, that's which Edison cylinder machine will be turned on at that point.

SIMON: I can see why a machine that can actually tell your fortune would be worth two million dollars. I have a hard time seeing how a machine which will play a wax cylinder would be worth two million dollars.

PAPA: The fact that this is probably the only known example of this particular machine may be the reason why the numbers are starting to get a little crazy. So we really don't know.

SIMON: There's something really very comforting about the idea about you put in a coin and at random somebody tells you something that, as we know, stands a good chance of being true.

PAPA: Well, that's part of the mystery of the whole fortune teller amusement thing. I can remember as a young child going to an amusement park and seeing a fortune teller. And, you know, the combination of the creepiness and the mystery of it. And the question in my mind at that age was can this thing really tell my fortune? And, of course, as I got older I realized that it absolutely cannot tell your fortune.


SIMON: Oh, I see - so you're willing to stipulate that?

PAPA: Oh, believe me. They don't tell your fortune. There's an illusion that it tells your fortune. Simply, they are card vendors. You give this thing some money and it gives you back a little piece of paper. And what happens in between that process is the whole illusion and the allure of these amusement devices.

SIMON: John Papa, owner of Arcade Treasures in Mayfield, New York, joining us from WAMC in Albany.

Thanks so much.

PAPA: Thank you. My pleasure.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tell me, Mrs. Fortune Teller, which direction will my future go? I'd like to know. Tell me, Mrs. Fortune Teller, which direction will my future go?

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.