- Associated Press - Monday, August 29, 2011

VIRGINIA CITY, Mont. — 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 fortunetelling machine featured in the Tom Hanks movie “Big.” Others took one look at those piercing eyes and got the heebie-jeebies so bad that they couldn’t get away fast enough.

Until a few years ago, nobody, not even its owner, knew the nonfunctioning machine gathering dust in Bob’s Place was an undiscovered treasure sitting in plain sight in this ghost town turned tourist attraction.

The 100-year-old fortuneteller was a rare find. Instead of dispensing a card like Zoltar, the Gypsy would speak your fortune from a hidden record player. When you dropped a nickel into the slot, her eyes would flash, her teeth would chatter and her voice would come floating from a tube extending out of the 8-foot-tall box.

Word got out when the Montana Heritage Commission began restoring the Gypsy more than five years ago. Collectors realized the machine was one of only two or three “verbal” fortunetellers left in the world.

One of those collectors, magician David Copperfield, said he thinks it is even rarer than that.

“I think it’s only one of one,” Mr. Copperfield said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

Mr. 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 mechanized Yacht Race, Temple of Mystery and various machines that tested a person’s strength.

Mr. 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 of collections who received the call from Mr. Copperfield’s assistant, said the offer was in the ballpark of $2 million, along with a proposal to replace it with another fortunetelling 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 that 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 Ms. Norby.

The commission’s acting director, Marilyn Ross, echoed Ms. 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 $3 million bid that would top Mr. 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 mine shaft,” Mr. Holstein said. “It’s good that it’s there and it survived, but now it really needs to be part of the world.”

Mr. Holstein said he wouldn’t be surprised if the machine ultimately sold for $10 million or more. Mr. Copperfield also said he is still interested in purchasing it.

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