Collecting 1960s-style Las Vegas casino chips often 'teach' a bit of cultural history

Coin Lore column published in the Dec. 15, 2014, issue of Coin World
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 11/28/14
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While you can find gambling casinos in just about every state and every Indian “reservation” now, time was that Nevada was all there was for legal gambling and Las Vegas was its capital.

The city’s strip had glitz, light bulbs and Vegas Vic, an animated neon sign of a waving cowboy. Legendary casinos like the Sands, Desert Inn, Last Frontier and Flamingo drew convention-going otherwise straight-laced businessmen and high rollers from the coasts.

The Rat Pack featuring those kings of cool, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, was born at the Sands in 1960 when the five performed together at the hotel’s famous Copa room while in town to film Oceans 11.

About the same time, three winning betters took $5 casino chips home as souvenirs. While those $5 chips had the buying power of about $40 in current money, they’re worth $25,000 and more to collectors today.

Casino chip collecting is one of the hottest spots in exonumia, with prize disks fetching outsize prices.

Sands chips, because of their history, coolness and rarity, top the price guides. The most expensive chip, a $100 Sands token, fetched $145,000 several years ago.

One of the rarer Sands chips is a $5 ninth-issue piece that was used in the late 1950s. It was blue with three mustard-colored inserts at the edges. In the center of both sides was a white disk showing the Casino’s trademark cowgirl leaning on an hourglass, four stars, two diamonds, the words THE SANDS / LAS VEGAS NEVADA and the denomination.

Collectors know of three undamaged pieces and one that was holed, apparently by the casino. Heritage Auctions reports that casinos often made key chains for tourists out of withdrawn chips.

In 2010, a Very Slightly Used (chip collectors have their own grading system) chip sold for $26,290 at auction. The piece fetched the highest price of some 60 chips at Heritage’s first sale of casino chips.

Antique Trader magazine noted in a preview of the sale, “This ‘hourglass’ chip features one of the best-known vintage Vegas logos; it was used in advertising and promotion throughout the 1950s and was a very appropriate emblem back when Vegas was a Western-themed town.”

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