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New law a partial fix, antiques dealer says By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian WHITEFISH - Antique gambling devices, seized in January from a dealer in Whitefish, were returned Friday, one day after a law was signed making such collectibles legal. "This is a good start," said Ron Turner, a longtime antiques dealer specializing in high-end Old West merchandise. "But we still have a ways to go. The law is OK for now, but in the long term, it's a real mess." Turner and his wife, Eila, own Cowboy Cabin in Whitefish, a relatively new shop that opened around Christmas last year. They sell quality pieces of Western history - a 19th-century buffalo coat with beaver collar and cuffs, a Civil War weapon, buckskins - and bits of Americana. On Jan. 31, they also were selling a small handful of old-time gambling machines. Most were more than a century old, gathered from dusty saloons across the West. There was a well-worn blackjack table, a pair of punchboards and a roulette table, among other things. A roulette wheel, dating from the 1880s, had spent 20 years on the set of television's "Gunsmoke" series before landing in Turner's shop. Turner called the collection "the real McCoy," sought after by "serious collectors." State gambling officials called it contraband. On the last day of January, Turner said, two agents from the state Gambling Investigation Bureau walked in and confiscated his collection. State law prohibited selling gambling devices, no matter their age. The confrontation that followed was highly charged and visibly public, with lawmakers and others joining the Turners in their outrage. Turner called the seizure laws "obsolete" and "abusive." The agents, Turner said, were being unreasonable and hypocritical. The state is home to maybe 20,000 active gambling machines, and gambling revenues pump tens of millions into state coffers each year, he said, but an antiques dealer couldn't sell a century-old craps table to a private collector. At the heart of the debate was a fundamental difference in how the merchandise was defined. Turner saw the pieces as collectibles and valuable antiques, important parts of Western history. The state saw them as gambling devices. "These items were created for one purpose," said Larry Renman, district supervisor at the bureau. "They were made for gambling. And they remain gambling devices until they're rendered completely inoperable." Someone, Renman said, could fix up the antiques and start gambling with them. "These items have nothing to do with gambling," Turner countered. And, he said, anyone who's ever watched "Antiques Road Show" knows rendering the items inoperable would "completely destroy their historic value." No one in their right mind, he said, is going to open a gambling parlor with this merchandise. "Who would spend $18,000 on a hundred-year-old antique roulette wheel that has parts missing, when they can buy a brand-new one at the box stores for $200?" Turner wondered. The difference, Renman said, is Turner's antiques were made with the intent of gambling, but the modern stuff sold in box stores was made with the intent of recreation, as toys and games. "That's ridiculous," Turner said. "That makes no sense at all." State legislators apparently agreed, and passed a bill making it legal for dealers such as Turner to sell up to three antique gambling devices per year. To sell more than that, he'd need a permit and oversight from state gambling regulators. The law signed last Thursday was made retroactive to the beginning of the year, which meant Turner could reclaim his seized merchandise. That chafes Renman, who delivered the goods back to Cowboy Cabin. "Personally," Renman said, "I never like to see a law created that absolves a person of a crime they committed. It was a very clear statute, and it's been in effect for a long time. What was lost in all this was that Mr. Turner violated the law." His agents, Renman said, were simply doing their jobs, were enforcing the law as written by legislators. "They did exactly what they were supposed to do," Renman said. "They did a good job." Montana law has never made a distinction between antiques and contraband, Renman said, because such a distinction would be hard for investigators to make. The new law, he said, is riddled with "nebulous" judgment calls, not least of which is how investigators are to tell if an item is antique or not. Turner doesn't much like the new law, either, but for very different reasons. He, for one, said he will choose not to sell more than three pieces each year because he wants nothing more to do with gambling regulators. Once he had a permit to sell additional pieces, he said, then he'd have to collect personal information on buyers, so agents could later "track the items sold." "There's a reason auction houses don't publicize the names and addresses of people who buy high-end items," Turner said. "These are clients who value their privacy." Instead, he said, he put just a few of his more expensive items on display, because if he can only sell three this year they'd better be good. "This is a very awkward law," Turner said. "Now I can legally sell illegal items, and you can legally buy illegal items, but they're still illegal. It's very confusing." He accepted it, he said, only to speed recovery of his merchandise. What he'd really like, though, is a whole new law exempting antiques and collectibles from state gambling oversight. He said he plans a petition drive to put such a measure on the ballot. "I haven't seen that (proposal)," Renman said, "but it seems he thinks he should be allowed to sell anything he wants anytime he wants." Turner disagrees. He doesn't want to sell everything, doesn't even want to sell gambling machines. He just wants to sell Old West antiques. "I just do not believe that antique shops have anything to do with gambling," Turner said. "We need to revisit that law." For now, however, he's just happy to have his merchandise in the store. The seized items, he said, are worth about $80,000. "I'm glad to have them back," he said. But as for the state regulators, "I'd be happy never to see them again." Reporter Michael Jamison Missoulian New PS If you wish to see the Law futher changed...contact Cowboy Ron 406 270-2842 COWBOY RON SAVED $100,000 DOLLARS OF GENUINE HISTORICAL OLD WEST GAMBLING ANTIQUES FROM BEING DESTROYED BY HAVING THE LAW AMENDED. Now everyone in Montana can own, buy and sell Gambling Items for personal recreation at home legally. 2007.