Casino collecting started by an accident

Casino collecting started by an accident

June 21, 2016 3:01 AM


Sheldon Smith and his wife, Christine, became collectors of casino memorabilia almost by accident.

They would forget to cash a chip during one of their four or five trips each year to Las Vegas. The chips inevitably got tossed into a bag when they returned home to Chicago.

At the time, they had no idea just how big of a hobby this would become for them.

The Smiths, who retired and moved to Vegas in 2008, are co-chairs for the 24th annual Casino Collectibles Convention, which runs Wednesday through Saturday at the South Point.

“Pretty much everything you can imagine that has a casino name on it, people will buy,” Sheldon Smith said.

Smith thought about it for a second and realized there was actually one exception: “A urinal strainer.”

Dang it. Always wanted one of those, didn’t you?

Once the Smiths found out there was this organized group called The Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club, Inc., they were not only out of breath from saying it, they were hooked.

Their home is more like a mini-museum with casino memorabilia throughout, including a photo of the Dunes’ implosion, a trash can from the Sahara, a key chain from Silver City, and even a piece of the pavement from Fremont Street in downtown before it was dug up and replaced by the Fremont Street Experience.

The centerpiece of the living room is an oversized chip (48 inches in diameter) of a Playboy Playmate that came from the former Playboy Club at the Palms.

For Sheldon, however, the prize possession is really a small ceramic figurine of a flamingo that was a giveaway at the Flamingo’s opening in 1946.

The Smiths – she’s a former attorney, he used to run a company that helped students prepare for ACT and SAT tests – frequently search for hidden gems at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales and on eBay. He studies books on collecting in hopes of being able to identify exactly what might be valuable.

Your trash could be a casino memorabilia collector’s treasure, which brings up the dilemma of whether the buyer should feel obligated to inform the seller of what they’ve got.

“That’s always the question when someone goes flea-marketing,” Sheldon said. “My philosophy is – I’m not responsible. If you don’t know what you have and you sell it for less than it’s worth, that’s your problem.”

Collectors also occasionally buy a worthless item thinking it could be of value. Sheldon concedes that’s happened to him.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. “It’s the chase that counts, I guess.”

That chase not only helps the Smiths build their own collection, but they’ve also been able to “supplement our retirement income” by selling off certain other pieces, Sheldon admitted.

They’ve become quite a husband-and-wife duo in this venture, even using walkie-talkies at the larger flea markets to notify each other if one finds anything interesting.

The fact they ever got together at all is somewhat astonishing considering how rude he initially was to her. They once worked for the same company with Sheldon based in Chicago, Christine in Denver.

But Christine had replaced someone Sheldon hired and trained, so Sheldon, out of loyalty to that person, wanted nothing to do with her at first. A co-worker suggested Christine call Sheldon for advice on something. When she did, Sheldon told her, “Call somebody else.”

It wasn’t until they were scheduled to work a convention together in Vegas – April 4, 1986 – that they met face-to-face.

Seeing her smile for the first time immediately changed his impression of her while she quickly found out he was also much different than expected.

“He wasn’t the curmudgeon I thought he was going to be,” said Christine, who is 69, two years younger than Sheldon. “He was actually very nice in person. We hit it off.”

They were married eight years later and now they’re inseparable collectors. Despite their enthusiasm, it’s one of those hobbies that’s otherwise in severe decline. That collector’s club with the really long name has gone from 3,000 members to 1,600 in recent years.

“People don’t collect like they used to,” Sheldon said. “They look. They admire. But they say we’re nuts.”

For four days this week, those nuts will take over the South Point. About 1,000-1,500 people, mostly from Nevada, California and Arizona, are expected to attend. There will be 50-plus vendors and daily educational seminars.

It starts Wednesday evening with a banquet for club members. Saturday’s event from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. is open to the public free of charge.

For more information on the club visit

Dave Dye is a former sportswriter for the Detroit News and He has covered six Stanley Cup Finals, five Final Fours, three NBA Finals, three Rose Bowls and one World Series. Twitter: @Dyedave Email: