Gaming collectibles show at South Point

Jun 28, 2011 3:08 AM

Walk into a large banquet room at South Point and you will see tables of chips and gaming collectibles everywhere. But it’s seeing all that red, white and blue that leaves the greatest impression.

"There are a lot of American flags here because it’s about people involved in Americana and this is a great hobby," said Carey Burke, a historian and nominee for the Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club Hall of Fame. "I started as a coin collector with silver dimes, but once I was shown chips I became hooked."

Hooked is putting it mildly. Burke has filled 21 tables just on a paper collectibles alone at the 19th annual convention, which has settled in for a second year at South Point after stints at the old Aladdin, Riviera, Tropicana and Orleans.

Venders like Burke focus their entire year around the convention, especially with the tough economic times the country is experiencing.

"There’s no denying the industry has been hurt by today’s economic crisis," said Sheldon Smith, the convention’s vice president, education and publicity director. "We would like to grow and expand the hobby each year. Our hope is to interest more people and we’re so grateful to Michael Gaughan and South Point for being so accommodating."

Touring the second floor banquet room there’s every type of stamp, post card, ashtray and portrait of anything found in casinos, but the show is really all about the chips.

"Our goal is to attract 500 to 1,000 people a day who live in the Vegas Valley to drool at things they want to buy and listen to offers about items they wish to sell," Smith said.

Collectors are indeed passionate about their craft, whether casino items, coins, stamps, antiques or sports memorabilia. On one hand it’s the love of acquiring artifacts that may gain value over time. On the other, it’s finding that one item that one day may change your life.

"Three years ago, someone sold a Showboat $1 chip from 1961 for $29,000 on Ebay," Smith recalled. "She was in Las Vegas on her honeymoon and went to the Showboat. While there she put a $1 chip in her jewelry box. Well, 47 years later she retires and is looking for things to sell. She put this 1961 Showboat chip up and everyone went crazy."

Indeed, connoisseurs of this craft will spend literally hours at a table with their value books and printouts examining each coin in quest of the proverbial "needle in a haystack" – much as the pioneers searched for gold back in the Old West.

"Nevada gaming has been going on for about 80 years so there is a lot of material to collect," Smith said. "Today the Cosmopolitan may make 10,000 $1 chips. Well, 50 years ago, casinos may have made only 500 to 1,000."

When places such as the Showboat and more recently Sahara close, the value of their items naturally goes up.

"In the days of the Showboat, they did things to the chips they don’t do today," Smith said. "For example, one side could be a picture of the Showboat and the other side a photographic image of people inside the casino playing. Supposedly an early Sahara $5 chip sold for $125,000 but it’s hard to document."

Michael Spinetti comes to the convention each year from Jackson (Calif.) – located in the heart of gold country some 45 miles from Sacramento.

"I started collecting casino items 35 years ago," said Spinetti, a former mayor of Jackson who has a store in downtown Las Vegas at 810 S. Commerce St. "Jackson was the last town in California to close gaming back in 1958. I began to buy chips and gaming apparatus and have about 2,000 square feet of basement space at home full of antique gaming devices."

Here at the convention, Spinetti also has a bowl of chocolate chip cookies.

"They definitely encourage people to buy," he said. "The industry was more vibrant eight to 10 years ago, but I do one show a year and this is it. I’ve been here every year (19) since it started."

I wonder what a 1992 chocolate chip cookie sells for?