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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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But limited-edition chips have also been responsible for a great deal of hand-wringing among collectors. "There is such a glut of new chips I don't know if there will be a demand five years from now," says Bob Mera, an Atlantic City native and former dealer who owns the Gaming Emporium on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. "You can buy 100 different $5 chips for $600; there is so much stuff."

Many traditionalists think casinos are taking advantage of collectors by flooding the market with new chips that seem to have little connection to gaming or true commemorative events. "A lot of collectors don't buy limited-edition chips because they're issued primarily for collectors, not for gambling," says Black. Nor do those chips spark the imaginations of collectors the way older, obsolete chips do. "They're not very meaningful," says Las Vegas native James Campiglia, a collector and historian who owns about 12,000 chips. "They've got pictures of bowlers and boxers and rodeo riders. With older, historical chips you think about Meyer Lanskyand the mob."

In a 16-month period from January 1996 to May 1997, Nevada casinos issued 415 commemorative chips, according to Casino Collectible Magazine. Fifty-nine Nevada casinos issued at leastone commemorative chip in 1996, with four casinos accounting for a whopping 36 percent of all commemorative issues: Four Queens, Las Vegas (43), Arizona Charlie's, Las Vegas (28), Flamingo Hilton, Laughlin (25) and Flamingo Hilton, Reno (24). Purchasing one of every Nevada commemorative chip at face value in 1996 would have set a collector back $3,609.

The Fiesta casino in North Las Vegas issued the most commemorative chips through the first quarter of 1997 (15), followed by the Flamingo Hilton, Laughlin (12). Collectors say there is a simple reason why Four Queens issued the most chips in 1996 and why the Fiesta is leading so far in 1997. Gene Trimble, an avid chip collector, worked as Four Queens' chip coordinator before leaving in October 1996 to assume the same duties at the Fiesta. "The collector world is divided," says Trimble. "Collectors started going after casino managers and asked for more commemoratives. Now, all of a sudden, they say there's too many. But even the ones that complain still come in and get the chips."

Alhough Trimble admits he's as much at fault as anyone for the glut of chips on the market, it's hard to take offense at someone so enthusiastic about chip collecting. "This hobby is a hobby of the future," says Trimble, who grew up in Newport, Kentucky, and specializes in illegal gaming chips from that town. "If the number of collectors double, the value of my collection doubles. Everybody can buy these chips at face value, and they're beautiful. It gets to be a financial burden for some people, but chips are so easy to dump. You may not earn a lot of money, but you'll get your money back."

Many longtime collectors are less worried about the types and quantities of limited-edition chips constantly being issued than they are about speculators who seem to flood any collectible market that breaks into the mainstream. "Like anything that's growing, chip collecting tends to have its problems," says Herz. "People get in with more greed than knowledge. There are some problems with misrepresentation, people trying to exploit a nonexistent rarity to collectors. It is easy for people to get carried away in a market as hot as chips."

The problem of scarcity has been particularly acute with Cuban chips. Garrett says he has come across several unscrupulous dealers in recent years who have misrepresented certain Cuban chips. The scam goes like this: The dealer presents a chip to a collector as "the only one he's ever seen," and sells it for, say, $200 because of its supposed rarity. Several months later, the collector discovers the dealer has several more of the same chip. The value of the supposedly one-of-a-kind chip then plummets. "One of the problems with the hobby is we're so new and taking off so fast there is not much literature and few catalogs where you can find information about chips," says Black. "You have to depend on who you're dealing with."

As with other collectibles, education is the key to avoiding scams. With casino chips, part of that education is looking at a chip and knowing who made it and in approximately which year. Though a dozen or so companies have made chips over the last century, each with its own distinctive mold designs, only seven supply U.S. casinos today: Paul-Son Gaming Supplies, the Bud Jones Co. and R.T. Plastics, all three of which are based in Las Vegas; Chipco International, which is based in Windham, Maine; T.R. King, of Los Angeles; Atlantic Molding, of Portland, Maine; and Reliable, of Frazier Park, California. (There are several European companies that manufacture chips similar to those used in the United States, as well as lightweight jetons and rectangular plaques often seen in French casinos.)

The three largest manufacturers--Paul-Son, Bud Jones and Chipco--each use a different manufacturing process, and their chips are easily identifiable by collectors. Paul-Son and Bud Jones have made casino chips for five decades, while Chipco entered the market in 1985.

Paul-Son's chips are made through a compression-mold process and are identifiable by small, uneven colored stripes on the edge of a chip. The stripes have a "squished" look and appear to be painted on but are actually composed of small, colored inserts that are set into a mold. Under extremely high pressure, the inserts and surrounding plastic material are fused into one solid block. Many Paul-Son chips are also imprinted around the edge with the company's distinctive "hat and cane" mold. (The design was originally created decades ago by Christy & Jones Co., Bud Jones' first company, which was sold to Paul-Son when it dissolved in the 1960s.) Most of the casinos in Las Vegas use chips by Paul-Son, a third-generation company founded by Paul Endy Sr., which went public three years ago.

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