Pinball Museum Will Auction 1,700 Arcade Games After Closing Its Doors

The Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif., is closing because of financial difficulties, augmented by the pandemic. Its collection could be worth as much as $7 million.,

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Inside an unremarkable warehouse near Palm Springs, Calif., hundreds of pinball machines once beckoned arcade game aficionados from far and wide, their blinking lights and coin slots a throwback to a time long before Xbox.

But then came the coronavirus pandemic, and the game, one that the museum’s owner said was already a losing proposition because of the economic climate and the cost of real estate and insurance, was over. No flippers could keep the ball in play.

Now, the Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif., one of the largest museums devoted to pinball machines, is about to do something that once might have seemed inconceivable: It will start on Friday to auction off more than 1,700 arcade games.

The auction will be conducted both online and at the museum itself, where in 2015 a Guinness World Record was set for the most people playing pinball simultaneously: 331.

The collection could be worth as much as $7 million, according to the auctioneer handling the sale, which includes some machines more than 60 years old. The holy grail of the sale could be a “Pirates of the Caribbean” collector’s edition pinball machine from 2018, associated with the Disney franchise, which the auction house said could fetch up to $35,000.

The museum’s founder, John Weeks, said in an interview on Wednesday that he had no choice but to part with his extensive collection of about 1,000 electronic arcade games and 700 pinball machines, including those featuring “Star Wars,” “Superman” and “Ghostbusters” themes, that he had personally acquired over the years.

“It’s just sadness,” Mr. Weeks said of the museum’s demise. “People would come from all over the world to go to this place.”

Even before the pandemic, the museum was open only about nine days a year and mainly hosted events, averaging about 9,000 visitors annually, Mr. Weeks said. Most of those visitors paid $80 for an all-day pass or $150 for a weekend pass, which he said allowed visitors to play an unlimited number of games. No coins necessary.

But the museum had been losing money, Mr. Weeks, 58, said, and he decided to lease the 18-acre site to a cannabis farm. Finding a new home for the museum proved to be difficult, and a plan to move the museum to Palm Springs — about 20 minutes from Banning — was derailed because of its cost and expected delays, he said.

“I didn’t have enough money to save it myself,” Mr. Weeks said of the museum.

The auction, which will be held this Friday through Sunday and Sept. 24-26, is being handled by Captain’s Auction Warehouse, based in Anaheim, Calif., which specializes in pinball machines and arcade games.

“Personally I’m sad about it, but I’m optimistic that the equipment will move to good places,” Chris Campbell, the auction company’s owner, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Mr. Campbell said that the auction, the single largest private collection sale that his company has ever handled, has generated all kinds of buzz.

“The interest is insane,” he said. “It’s beyond expectation.”

He said that he expected there to be strong interest in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pinball game, which was one of very few that were made. When asked if a collector would actually use the pinball machine after spending five figures, he said: “They’re definitely going play it. It’s definitely a show-off piece, too.”

Mr. Weeks said that he bought his first pinball machine as a child growing up in Lakewood, Calif., in Los Angeles County, and that he sold them out of his mom’s garage. When he was 17, he said, he opened his first arcade.

Years later, Mr. Weeks said, he watched as pinball machines began appearing in barcades, bars combined with arcades.

“Back then it was kids’ quarters,” he said, adding, “now these kids have credit cards.”

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