- 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.

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 weak economy at arm’s length has meant deep budget cuts.

Those cuts have hit the Montana Heritage Commission particularly hard. Just weeks after Ms. Norby spoke with the AP, her position and three others were eliminated as part of a larger reorganization to cut $400,000 from the commission’s budget, Ms. Ross said.

The state agency that oversees the commission is not so quick to reject the idea of selling the Gypsy. Andrew Poole, deputy director of the Department of Commerce, said he has not seen any offers in writing. If an offer is made, he said, it would go through a bid process that includes scrutiny from the commission and input from the public.

The state inherited the Gypsy in 1998 when it paid $6.5 million 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 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 it, 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,” Ms. 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, fortunetelling 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Peterson, whose position also was eliminated in the cutbacks.

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