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Collectible Casino Chips

Collectors Turn to Casino Chips, Seeking Fun, Profit and a Link to Gambling History Through These Fascinating and Colorful Pieces of Clay and Plastic That Don't Lose Their Value Even After They Leave the Gaming Table
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

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Lansky owned a piece of the Hotel Nacional, the Habana Riviera and the Casino de Capri in Havana. (A Meyer Lansky-like character was portrayed by actor Lee Strasberg in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part II, carving up Havana's gambling among various mob bosses.) The Capri attracted many of the Hollywood elite, who were permitted to gamble on the airplane ride from Miami to Havana. Actor George Raft was the full-time host of the Capri's Salon Rojo. Because of the casino's popularity, its chips are some of the most plentiful of those from Cuba, though they are found in significantly smaller numbers than those from most popular Las Vegas casinos. Chips from the Capri typically range in value from $20 to $75.

One of the premier collectors of Cuban chips, Henry Garrett, has traced 80 casinos that existed in Cuba from 1840 to 1958. Those casinos issued as many as 600 different chips. The Tropicana alone issued approximately 75 different chips between 1941 and 1958. Of those 600 different chips, however, Garrett believes as many as 150 are unique or nearly unique--meaning only one, or two at the most, have ever been seen in the collectibles market. Garrett buys many of his chips from baseball card dealers who regularly do business in Cuba. The island nation has been baseball crazy since the days when many of the Major League teams had spring training sites there. Garrett believes there are about two dozen serious collectors of Cuban chips in the United States, though many others count at least one Cuban chip in their collections. Garrett also suspects there are many "closet collectors" among Cuban nationals in Florida and elsewhere.

For collectors, the most popular Cuban chips are the ones that have the word Havana, or, in some cases, Habana, printed on them. The Habana Hilton and Habana Riviera are two casinos that produced chips that have become extremely collectable for that reason. Other valuable and scarce pre-Castro chips came from the Havana Yacht Club, considered Havana's premier private social club. As the story goes, the owner of the club fled Cuba within days of the Revolution, bringing with him 60,000 to 70,000 of his club's casino chips and stashing them on his escape yacht. For whatever reason, he threw the chips overboard. The few chips that survive today are those that walked out of the casino in patrons' pockets.

"People are scavenging Spanish galleons; maybe they'll be doing the same for chips one day," says one collector.

In the last year or two, however, chips from Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos have steadily risen in value, while the prices of Cuban chips have plummeted. The reason, say collectors, is tied to uncertainty over the island's political future. Few Cuban chips are in the hands of collectors today, but many collectors believe that warehouses full of chips could come onto the market should Cuba be opened to the United States. Thousands of Cuban citizens could have chips stashed away in coffee cans and drawers. "The fact that slot machines and bigger collectibles that should have shown up from Cuba have not," says Garrett, "means this stuff could still be there. People are waiting to see where the price settles."

The result has been a precipitous drop in prices for Cuban chips. Most sell in the $20-to-$50 range, a far cry from the $200 to $500 they were realizing just two years ago. Even the most desired Cuban chips are not immune. A Cuban check from Wilbur Clark's casino (Clark went on to open the Desert Inn in Las Vegas) that went for $1,000 two years ago now sells for $200.

Still "Cuban chips are extremely important," says Herz, who in the 1960s created the first museum-quality collection of chips and gaming archives for Harvey's casino in Lake Tahoe. "People have a genuine reluctance to buy them, but they will have to get over that because these chips are historically significant."

Today, the hottest chip collectible is the limited-edition commemorative chip. Although casinos have tens of thousands of their everyday house chips, commemoratives are usually manufactured in small editions ranging from 500 to 5,000 and are typically issued in $5 denominations, though some go higher. For the last Mike Tyson/Evander Holyfield fight, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas issued $100 and $500 commemorative chips. "For a collector, limited chips are where it's happening," says Lurie. "If the edition is under 1,000 I'll invest in them. Anything under 1,000 you'll have trouble finding, but the value will go up fast."

Here are some examples of commemorative chips in demand: a $5 Valentine's Day chip issued in l997 by Harrah's Atlantic City now sells for $60, a $5 Donald Trump/Marla Maples wedding chip issued by the Taj Mahal sells for about $45, a $5 George Burns 100th birthday chip issued by Caesars Palace in Las Vegas sells for about $30, and a $5 Betty Boop chip issued by the MGM Grand in Las Vegas sells for $35.

"Commemorative chips have changed the face of chip collecting," says Gene Trimble, the keno manager at the Fiesta casino in Las Vegas, who has more than5,000 chips in his collection. "It's brought more new collectors to the hobby. Before commemoratives, casinos would never tell you how many chips they made. "

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