NEW YORK — Casino chips have no inherent value outside of the gambling venues that issue them. They are meant to be exchanged for cash under that roof, on the spot. Sometimes, though, people take casino chips home as souvenirs or forget to cash them in. The casinos themselves might be thoroughly transformed or long since bulldozed, but their chips might not be worthless. The collecting and resale of casino chips is big business. Some vintage chips that bear the livery of defunct casinos or have eye-catching graphics (or both) bring hundreds of dollars each, with a few individual pieces selling for several thousand and the scarcest examples breaking the five-figure mark. While it doesn’t happen every day, casino chips can achieve sums well in excess of their face value.
The record price was set at the 2014 Casino Chip & Gaming Tokens Collectors Club (CC & GTCC) convention, which saw a $5 chip from The Golden Goose command $75,000. The casino operated in Las Vegas on Fremont Street from 1975 to 1980. Among its slot machines was a single blackjack table that was only open for a couple of months in the late 1970s. Most of the chips were destroyed, but that $5 chip likely was brought home as a souvenir, and is thought to be the only survivor.
As with other collectibles, scarcity drives demand. Chips are typically rendered obsolete when the issuing casino goes out of business or it redesigns its chips and pulls the older ones from circulation. A group of more than 900 obsolete chips from the 1980s from Harrah’s Reno / Lake Tahoe Casino sold for $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Potter & Potter Auctions. Harrah’s Reno closed in 2020 after 83 years of operation.
Casino chip-collecting started out as a lark, with visitors spontaneously but quietly choosing to take a small, flat, easy-to-carry souvenir from their travels, but it evolved into a serious collecting field in the 1980s, around the same time the CC & GTCC was founded.
Las Vegas earned its nickname of Sin City from its multitude of casinos, and it remains the top gambling and entertainment destination in the United States. Chips from Vegas casinos usually rank high on many collectors’ wishlists, seconded by chips sourced from anywhere in Nevada.
In general, the older the chip, the more valuable it is. A textbook example that proves the point is a circa-1948-51 Club Harlem $5 chip from the Reno, Nevada casino of the same name. The chip, which realized $1,900 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Potter & Potter Auctions, also has cross-collecting appeal. The casino was one of the first integrated gambling houses in Nevada, and it attracted many African American players and also top entertainers such as Sammy Davis, Jr., B.B. King and Louis Armstrong. The auctioneers state that the chip is the highest-valued for the casino per Campiglia and Wells’s price guide on casino chips.
Besides age and location, casino chip collectors hold other attributes in mind. Designs with more detailed images and those with metal inlays are, of course, more appealing than chips that are merely stamped discs of plastic. Inlays are often circular and seated in the chip’s center, but some examples have hexagonal inlays, or have scalloped or sawtooth edges.
A set of six vintage chips that earned $3,100 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021 at Holabird Western Americana Collections shows the diversity of the aesthetics of casino chips. The Harvey’s Lake Tahoe $2.50 chip and the Sahara Las Vegas $5 chip are not desirable denominations, but the detailed image in the center of each adds much to their value. By comparison, the two Harrah’s chips (the red one and the yellow one) in the set are colorful, but a bit plain.
Personal preferences also come into play. Some collectors target certain denominations and eras, or prefer chips from specific locations or casinos. Whimsy can affect collecting as well. Some buyers seek chips using an alphabetic theme. A group of slightly fewer than 100 casino chips, all from casinos with names starting with the letter M or N, took $875 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Weiss Auctions.
Most casino chips are used in well-known games such as poker, blackjack and baccarat, but in the past, some venues offered a game called Faro, which is similar to craps. Reportedly, this game was not a casino favorite as the odds could change mid-game, thus not giving the house set odds. A $5 Faro casino chip from Las Vegas’ Hotel Fremont realized $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Potter & Potter Auctions. It was drilled twice and notched three times – standard acts of defacement performed by the casino when withdrawing chips from use.
The Faro chip also illustrates the wide variety in color styles and designs seen on casino chips. Specimens in what’s known as ¼ style have four blocks of color in the border surrounding the center inlay. Some chips feature only one color, or are made in the ½ pie style (two color blocks). Still others boast the ⅛ pie style (eight color blocks). The pie pieces can themselves have inserts featuring a contrasting color.
Las Vegas remakes itself endlessly to keep loyal gamblers engaged. Nostalgia for the splashy, garish Mid-century Modern look of the casinos of yesterday extends to the chips that touched the felt on tables in smoke-filled rooms but never returned to the cashier. Though vintage casino chips can no longer pay out, collectors aren’t interested in their face value. They prize them for their connection to a time when casinos were few and concentrated in Nevada; a time when The Rat Pack prowled the Strip and starred in the Vegas heist film Ocean’s 11; and a time when Elvis sang in residence and revived his ailing career. That Vegas is gone, but vintage casino chips keep that glamorous era alive, and keep collectors humming ‘Viva Las Vegas’ as they study auction catalogs and mull their bids.