Step right up: Collecting carnival antiques

I recently appraised a vintage carnival game on the season 4 premiere of Discovery channel’s “Auction Kings” that was picked by Jon Hammond, Gallery 63’s picker and general manager. Today, antique and vintage carnival games are a hit with collectors, traders and yard sale shoppers, as shown by the sale of the clown-toss carnival game during the live auction featured at the end of the show.

Designers like to add these carnival items to interior design concepts to introduce whimsy and collectors amass these objects to recall the good old days. From the original objects used in vintage carnival games to the signs that advertise those popular games along the midway, patrons at America’s amusement parks and fairs remember the lazy days of playing games of chance. Yet, these pieces of Americana are as popular as they are pricey.

While most carnival games show heavy use and only fair condition, the evidence of age on these objects adds to their desirability. Prices are high, as a black Americana sign for a ball-toss game commands $500 to $1,000, and the accessories from a skeet-shooting game bring $250 to $275. Highly sought-after carnival collectibles are those that come with complete parts in working order.

Oddly enough, the well-worn and lovingly used look of some of these hand-lettered signs that announce “3 balls for $1” or “Whack a mole” with a painted image of a frightened rodent make many of these carnival advertisements quite appealing, too.

Carnival games that required rare objects such as a gigantic wooden sledgehammer used to ring a bell posted high above the carnival grounds, old milk bottles that even the strongest baseball pitch couldn’t topple over (because one bottle was hollowed out and replaced with a heavy lead shot inside) or primitive shooting-target game animals like brightly painted figural ducks or squirrels carved of wood are still all the rage with antique collectors.

The Americana market stirred the interest for these collectibles in the 1970s, and today, many new collectors are returning to the collecting category.

Today, some of the most popular carnival games are those which still stir the spirit of the amusement park. Similar to the bean or corn kernel bag toss games (also known as corn hole-where a kernel-filled bag is tossed underhand into a hole in a piece of wood), the clown toss carnival game was once played by two opponents or opposing teams positioned on opposite sides of a carnival booth. Players would toss corn-kernel filled bags from one side and try to get their bag into the clown’s opened mouth. Their opponent did the same thing from the other side of the booth. The winner got a prize.

The clown toss carnival game that I appraised on Auction Kings was made by Game Time Inc. of cast iron and brightly painted. Some of these games were even re-purposed as decorative trash can covers at amusement parks.

When collecting these old carnival games, accessory objects, and signage, you can almost smell the cotton candy.

– Dr. Lori’s Antiques Appraisal Comedy Show will offer free antiques appraisals May 5 at the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va., and May 25 and 26 at the Pungo Strawberry Festival ni Virginia Beach, Va. Ph.D. antiques appraiser and author Dr. Lori presents appraisal events to audiences worldwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on the hit TV show “Auction Kings” on Discovery channel. To have Dr. Lori appraise your antiques, check out her event schedule at or, or call 888-431-1010.