John Fignar is shown with the slot machine he bought in Las Vegas that got him hooked on gambling antiques. It’s a Pace “Saratoga” model machine made in 1937. In addition to being a slot machine, it also includes the world’s easiest pinball game, which you had to “succeed” at to complete the play. It is literally impossible to fail. That allowed the machine to be billed as a game of skill, not of chance. It’s in Fignar’s home casino and isn’t for sale. John said he has read that it’s rare and that only 20 examples are known, but he’s dubious. “I’ve seen three others just myself.”
Here’s a partial view of Fignar’s home casino. He said the vibrant Art Deco carpeting in shades of burnt orange, tan, black, and yellow is period and came from the Vogue Lounge at Riley’s Lake House casino in Saratoga Springs.
This “Saratoga Sweepstakes” horse-race countertop trade stimulator is $3500. Fignar said the curved glass cover is “worth as much as the whole rest of the piece.” No matter what you wagered, you always got a gumball, which allowed the owner to claim that it wasn’t truly a gambling device. You selected a horse; a bunch of them ran around. If yours won, you were paid off according to the odds posted on the machine. You could bet any amount that would fit in the slot. If the payoff was two to one and you bet 1¢ you got 2¢. If you put in a dime, you got 20¢.
Not everything Fignar sells relates to gambling. Sometimes he just buys stuff he likes, such as this Canadian industrial scale, circa 1895, by Burrow, Stewart & Milne Co., Ltd. It’s black with nickel-plated details and $1700.
A one-penny trade stimulator slot machine. This type of machine sat on the counters of bars, candy stores, and smoke shops. This one paid out in packs of cigarettes, the names of which are redolent of an age long past: Camels, Chesterfield, Old Gold, Lucky Strike, Fatimas, Wings, and Philip Morris. It’s $750.
A true one-arm bandit lurks in his lair. Fignar had this one carved out of basswood by Richard Delong of Johnsonburgh, Pennsylvania, whose company will carve just about any figure you want and will customize it to fit your slot machine. This one is $5700. Fignar said that, given Saratoga’s raffish reputation, he told Delong, “Put a gangster around it.” The slot machine itself dates from the 1940’s. The carving was done in the 1990’s. By itself, Fignar said, the slot machine would sell for about $2700.
A true rarity, this is a walnut double card press from the days before playing cards were coated to keep them stiff. You reach through the end holes to tighten the brass thumb screws that draw the press plates tight. It retains its original baize on the bottom board. It’s dovetailed and labeled “A. Ball & Bros. Makers Chicago.” Fignar said it dates from the Civil War era and that card presses of any type are rare, but double presses like this are even less likely to be found. Even though this one is missing its sliding top and the slotted guides that held the top, it is priced at $1200.
Poker chips and matchbooks from local casinos start at $15 and go up to $75. The two beautifully etched ivory examples on the far left of the second row from the bottom are from Saratoga’s Canfield Casino and are $75 each. Matchbooks in great condition from local gambling joints are $15 to $25.
In the Trade
From the late 19th century into the 1950’s, Saratoga Springs, New York, was a gambling hotbed. Gambling was a year-round industry, not just a seasonal pastime that flourished during the August horse-racing season. The town was jumping. The swells came with their money, and a whole raft of unsavory characters followed along, hoping to relieve them of it.
It was like something out of a William Kennedy novel. At any given time, as many as 30 gambling rooms were operating in the city or out on the shores of nearby Saratoga Lake and Lake Lonely. Guys like Xavier Cugat were leading their orchestras in the upscale lounges, and gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello were in on the action. None of this was legal, but it was wide open nevertheless. It was like Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas.
Coincidentally, John Fignar lives in Saratoga Springs and deals in gambling antiques. If you happen to be looking for a faro counter, a roulette table, or a slot machine, he can sell you one. He also deals in other coin-operated antiques—pinball, gumball, and soda machines and the like—but gambling stuff, especially if it has a Saratoga connection, is his first love.
Fignar noted that he has always had a full-time job, so you might call his antiques business a hobby or an avocation. On the other hand, you might call it an obsession. His basement and garage are crammed with inventory and with “projects” awaiting restoration. He has even converted his front parlor into a full-blown little casino. It resembles something out of the 1930’s, down to the period Art Deco carpeting that came from one of the nearby lake houses—the restaurants and clubs to which the gambling rooms were attached.
For years, Fignar had no particular attraction to gambling antiques. “I was always a very recreational—not big—gambler,” he said. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent much of his career bouncing around the country as a general manager or sales manager for radio stations. The jobs took him to Philadelphia; Baltimore; Kansas City; Albany; San Antonio; Providence; Flint, Michigan; and Cape Girardeau, Missouri (“That’s Rush Limbaugh’s hometown,” he said). He landed in some of these places more than once.
In fact, it was his second stint in Albany that led him to settle down in Saratoga Springs, where he has lived since 1985. His passion up until that time had been customizing cars, specifically street rods. A couple of his projects had been featured in car magazines, he said. Yet it was this interest that led directly to John’s discovery of gambling paraphernalia.
Fignar explained. About 25 years ago, he and a friend were thinking of going into business together in the aftermarket automobile business. (“Aftermarket,” we learned, includes everything you might use to fancy up your car after you buy it.) He went out to Las Vegas to represent the friend at the mammoth SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) aftermarket car show.
The business with his friend was never consummated, but, he said, “I was schlepping around Las Vegas and saw a place selling antique slot machines.” One was a Pace “Saratoga” model made in 1937. He lived in Saratoga. Somehow, it made sense for him spend “about $1100” to buy it. He still owns it. It holds a place of honor in his private casino.
Before long he also had another revelation. Slot machines were complicated; they often needed their innards fixed and their exteriors restored with new paint and metal plating. Does that sound like anything else he had been working on in his life? “It suddenly dawned on me––this is like doing a car!”
It should be noted that restoration is not a dirty word in this field. While there are all sorts of opinions on how much restoration is too much, the fact remains that unrestored machines will generally sell for less than restored ones. Fignar said, “There will always be the purist, but the people who buy these things want them to work and look spiffy. They don’t want a boat anchor. I think it’s my responsibility to bring back a piece to what it looked like when it came out of the shop.”
Gradually his restoration work became well known so that now it makes up about 70% of his business. He doesn’t approve of restoring machines to a state that never existed. He said, “I’ll polish casings, but I won’t plate parts that weren’t plated or paint parts that weren’t painted. I don’t use chrome. I use nickel because that’s what was used.” His philosophy is, “I restore a machine like it was mine.” Fignar does some restoration himself, but he farms out most of the painting and plating to professionals. Environmental regulations make setting up a nickel-plating operation in your cellar a thing of the past.
As one might expect, Fignar is a fount of Saratoga gambling lore. For example, he said that faro was enormously popular until blackjack came along, and “Slot machines were considered a woman’s game.” The big money was in cards, roulette, and dice games, and they were played by men. “Men had the money,” he said.
He also explained that locals were barred from the bigger gambling places. “They didn’t want to take locals’ money,” Fignar said. The owners knew, of course, that ultimately gamblers always lose. Their aim was to make visitors happy, suck the money from their pockets, and send them on their way. A bunch of local deadbeats hanging around would have sent the wrong message.
Fignar used to do three or four shows a year, but now he does only one—the American Museum of Dance antiques show. Held each January in Saratoga Springs, the show is a fundraiser for the museum and is housed in historic bathhouse buildings just south of town. He (along with other exhibitors with whom we’ve spoken) raves about the show. It’s managed by the museum staff and volunteers. No promoter. “I love that show,” he said. “They do a great job. They’re so attentive to the dealers.”
Fignar said he usually sells well at the show, though this year was down a little. “Small stuff was what was selling. A couple of big buyers didn’t come.” But plenty of other people came. We visited the show on Sunday afternoon two hours before it was to close, and the aisles were filled with people. There was a line to get in.
John also used to do the nearby Round Lake outdoor show each summer, but he has since given it up. “It always seemed to rain,” he said. That was OK when he was younger. He’d set up a tent and his teenage kids would sleep in it, safeguarding his machines overnight. Now the kids are grown, and roughing it doesn’t have lots of appeal for him. “I always had a full-time job and I wanted this to be fun.”
He also used to exhibit at the show in the elegant Canfield Casino in Saratoga’s Congress Park. That show, held during the racing season, was always heavy on jewelry and smalls that attracted mostly women. Fignar said, “I would be an oasis for the men.”
Interestingly, although he carries mostly things often thought of as “mantiques,” he said, “I have as many women as men buyers.” The ideal “is when the wife or girlfriend says, ‘that’s neat.’ Then it’s gangbusters.”
He said, “I’d like to find one more show,” but he hasn’t settled on one to aim for. “Since I’m only doing one show, my stash is accumulating.” He also doesn’t want to venture too far afield. He’s out of the radio business but is now a full-time sales rep for Home Depot’s at-home services unit that carries out jobs in customers’ homes. When we suggested a show like Rhinebeck, 90 minutes down the highway from Saratoga, it was clear that might be bit too far.
He also consigns the occasional machine to a local store and also sometimes sells on eBay, but, he said, “You can usually get a few dollars more at shows than on line.” Otherwise most of his sales come from referrals or from collectors who know him.
It’s clear that he really likes the interaction you get at shows. “At a show I’m always on my feet. I love sharing. Because my stuff is so unique, it’s often the first time people have seen it. They’re not sure about its history or prices. It’s my job to educate customers. If I can get somebody interested, they’ll start off small, but they’ll grow.”
He can sell them monogrammed or decorated chips from specific establishments for as little as $15. Some board games can be found for $200 or less.
As for how to create collectors in the first place, he’s at a loss. “I’m not going to get them interested; you’re not going to get them interested. They just have to see something that sparks their interest. That’s how it happened to all of us.”
Fignar once had a short-lived retail store on Broadway, the main drag in Saratoga Springs. He ran it from 2000 to 2002. He called it Saratoga Gaming, and its motto was “Everything for your game room.” He carried new and old merchandise. He had gambling paraphernalia, but also things like popcorn machines and cute signs. That was right about the time that the Saratoga Springs real estate market exploded. Rents became prohibitive. Many small stores got pushed off Broadway and national chains replaced them. That’s what happened to Saratoga Gaming.
There was one profitable thing that came out of the affair. Fignar said he owned the “Saratoga Gaming” domain name on the Web. He had a Web site but admitted, “It wasn’t really doing a lot for me. I wasn’t paying enough attention to it.” So, he sold it for serious money.
For now, he’ll continue to look for a second show to do. He figures he needs the incentive of another show to get to work on his projects in the basement and garage. “I’ve got to get some of those damn things done,” he said.
For more information, contact John Fignar at (518) 584-0268 or e-mail <email@example.com>.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest