Finding classic arcade machines is getting harder and harder here in the UK. More difficult still, is finding potential bargains. The hobby has gone nuts over the last few years, with many cabs now attracting four figure prices, as collectors hang on to their machines, and what’s left of the undiscovered, becomes discovered. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. When there are fewer machines coming to market, prices start rising, and the competition for what is available increases. It’s a brave man who enters the hobby now. Deep pockets are required to acquire good cabinets in the current drought.
So last week, when I spotted an original Taito Space Invaders machine for sale at an amusement auction in the Midlands, I thought it worth a punt. The auction house in question specialises in old circus curios, lamps, signs and one armed bandits – a market I wasn’t familiar with at all. So my logic told me that the people frequenting the place, wouldn’t be interested in a Space Invaders machine. Opportunity knocks.
The cab itself looked to be in excellent condition considering its age, and was described as working but with no picture. Sounded like a relatively simple monitor fix to me. So armed with a pocket of cash, my sack truck, some rope, a flask of coffee and a maximum bid in mind, I got up early this morning, and set off on a nice drive up the old Fosse Way in the Cotswolds to the auction location. The sun was out and traffic was light – what’s not to like?
And so I arrived an hour or so later and parked up. I contemplated again why I was there, and thought about any likely competition. The auction had been mentioned on collectors forums, and there was some discussion about the cabinet’s worth. But I still figured, it was a Sunday, not everyone would be bothered to make the trip and have the facilities to get the cab paid for and home on the same day – not to mention the cabinet wasn’t actually working. I was feeling confident.
On approaching the auction house, I was greeted with this sign on the door:
Interesting. Some filming going on in the auction house. I wondered what it might be for, and thought nothing more of it. But then a figure hurried past me coming out of the door. There was a flicker of recognition in my head and I stopped and turned.
I swore that was Jesse McClure walking out of the auction room. For the uninitiated, Jesse found fame as the aggressive but likeable bidder on the hit US TV show Storage Hunters.
So a bit of history and a disclaimer of sorts – I met Jesse a couple of years ago at the Play Blackpool event, where we gave a joint presentation on collecting arcade cabinets. It went down well and was a lot of fun. He was exuberant, gracious and just an all round good guy to spend time with.
“Hey!” I called. Jesse glanced over at me with a look of surprise on his face.
“Tony! What the hell are you doing here?”
And then it dawned on me. What would the worst case scenario be, if you were going to an auction to bid on an arcade machine? How about (not that I would have ever thought of this in a million years), Jesse McClure, the dude from that bloody Storage Hunters show being there looking to buy the same cab. And not only that, he’s filming a new TV show…
“I’m here to buy a Space Invaders cab” I replied.
“No way. NO. WAY!”
I could tell he was trying to hide his disappointment. He clearly thought the cab was going to go cheap, as no one else there was going to be interested.
“So how much you looking to spend on it dude?”
I had my wits about me, and kept my cards close to my chest. “Dunno mate, we’ll see”
So we had a chat, and entered the auction house. Jesse went to his side and sat down. I went to the other.
The cab was not up until an hour or so into proceedings, so I had a bit of time to get a feel for the auction and the way things were done. Jesse glanced at me across the room. I glanced back, and held a steely glare. We exchanged grins. His production people came up to me and acknowledged my interest, and checked that I had no objection to being on camera. They asked that when I bid, could I make sure I was visible so they could get some shots. No pressure then.
Jesse was bidding on a lot of other stuff which was good, but I knew I was beat. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a show if he lost the bid on what was one of the more interesting items there.
So our Space Invaders cabinet came up, Lot 126. Bidding started at £200 by proxy. Jesse was straight in at £220. The shootout started.
I held my card up, and before I knew it, we were at £300. I’m not quite sure how, as I only held it up for a couple of seconds, but at least I was winning.
“THREE FIFTY” he yelled.
“Shit” was all I could think of saying. We were close to my maximum in a matter of seconds.
“Three sixty!” was my rather pathetic counter.
“FOUR HUNDRED!” he boomed.
The auctioneer looked at me with a look of pity on her face. I shook my head. I was out before I started.
Someone else piped up from the front of the room, and bidding continued. I watched aghast as this cab went up and up. Jesse was victorious in just 45 seconds – he was there to buy and no mistake, as demonstrated by his aggressive bids. The closing price of £640 was way more than it was worth to me – here was another prime example of the way the market has gone. You couldn’t give away these things for £300 a matter of months ago. Given I suspected he was going to buy the cab at pretty much any price, it was tempting to just keep bidding to make sure he paid proper money for it, but I guess that’s not cricket, and my nerve would never hold. The risk of landing myself with a £1,000 Space Invaders cabinet, and trying to explain the dent in our bank account wasn’t something I wanted to take back home to my wife.
And so the numbers said it all. It wasn’t to be. We shook hands and grabbed a quick picture. I picked the wrong auction, and the wrong guy to bid against. But it was a good day out, and nice to catch up with Jesse, who I didn’t expect to meet again, least of all at a small auction house in the middle of the UK. He told me he already had a buyer lined up for the cab, so I assume he’s got some margin there to work with.
I was asked to say a few things to camera about the cabinet outside, and what it was like to bid against Jesse after the auction. I hammed it up as best I could, so there may be a small cameo appearance on the eventual episode, which will be a cool memento of the day.
So fate had delivered an unexpected day all in all, but worthwhile nonetheless – it’s all part of the fun trying to hunt down the last remnants of classic video arcade history. Go check out Elephant House Auctions, they have some really cool stuff and hold regular auctions every month.
Oh and look out for Jesse’s new show on Discovery Channel in September 2016.
Back to the drawing board!
Update October 2016: The show has now aired here on UK Channel Quest. Here’s the relevant clip. Fast forward to 7:08 to see the money shot if the video doesn’t start there: