RENO, Nev. – It was standing room only, with all 650 seats filled, for Victorian Casino Antiques’ Liberty Belle Saloon auction held July 8 at the Sparks Convention Center in Reno. The world-record auction prices garnered by many items lent credence to the presale publicity that this would, indeed, be the “coin-op auction of the decade.”
Reno’s Liberty Belle Saloon opened in 1958 and was owned by brothers Marshall and Frank Fey. Their grandfather, Charles Fey, invented the first three-reel slot machine, the Liberty Bell, in 1899.
The Fey brothers built “a wonderful collection of slot machines and gaming items manufactured by their grandfather, as well as others from later on that their father had an involvement with,” said Pat McGuire, co-owner (with Peter Sidlow) of Las Vegas-based Victorian Casino Antiques. “Everything from the saloon was sold at our auction.”
In the late 1800s, Charles Fey, like other major manufacturers who were starting to make gambling machines, had his factory in San Francisco. The 1906 earthquake wiped them all out, and they all left the city. “Fey settled outside of Reno because slot machines were legal in Nevada at the time,” said McGuire.
The sale’s top lot was a 1904 Caille roulette machine that climbed to $247,500 (all prices quoted include 10 percent buyer’s premium). McGuire said there were only about 20 of these machines ever made. Its rarity was enhanced by its Liberty Belle provenance. “I would say prices were inflated 30 to 50 percent just because they were coming from the Liberty Belle collection,” McGuire said.
Other stellar performers in the sale included a 1901 Caille Quintette, which sold for $52,250. Known as the ultimate gambling machine, it allowed a player to bet simultaneously on five hands. Alternatively, up to five gamblers could wager on each of the five different hands.
A 1937 AC Novelty multi-bell slot machine brought $8,800. After being approved by the Nevada State Gaming Commission, this machine was in operation for approximately three years.
Other gaming machines in the sale included a 1901 Wheeland California card drop, $26,400; 1904 25-cent Caille Centaur upright slot, $44,000; a 1904 Mills Cricket, $46,750; an 1889 Mills Twin Dewey upright slot machine with music box, $90,750; a 1928 Fey Ace Dice trade stimulator, $14,300; a 1935 Superior horse-race machine, $30,800; and a 1950s figural cocktail waitress with slot machine, $23,100.
Merchandise and fixtures from the saloon also were offered in the sale, with a large Reno Brewing Co. tin sign measuring 2 feet by 3 feet bringing $6,600. The large Budweiser horse-drawn wagon that was displayed in the restaurant sold for $24,200. Other pieces of memorabilia from the site included a Climax Tobacco ad on canvas, $7,150; Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad clock, $14,300; Koken round-seat, round-back barber chair, $7,150; and the bronze doors from the original Palace Hotel in San Francisco, $4,675. The doors were salvaged after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and had been prominently affixed to the entrance of the Liberty Belle’s restaurant.
Also present at the sale were representatives of slot machine producers Bally and IGT, “who spent a lot of money on their own (companies’) machines,” said McGuire. “We knew it was going to be exciting, but we had no idea.”
The saloon is an icon in the Reno landscape, with the sale making front-page news in local papers. “When they built this building, they had 25 acres and they were the only ones there,” said McGuire. “The convention center bought land behind them and built all around them, like the little house at the bottom of a skyscraper.” The building was purchased by the convention center and razed on Aug. 3 to create additional parking space. A local auction company will sell the remaining fixtures, as well as pieces of the building. “There’s a huge local interest in Reno about this place because it’s been there for 50 years,” said McGuire, who noted that the name “Liberty Belle” also has been sold to a local buyer.
For more information on the Liberty Belle Saloon or to obtain information on antique gambling machines in a book written by Marshall Fey (SLOT MACHINES: America’s Favorite Gaming Device), log on to www.libertybellereno.com. To learn more about the sale, and future Victorian Casino events, call 702-382-2466 or visit www.vcaauction.com.