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‘I got hooked on it’: An inside look at casino memorabilia collecting

Updated March 17, 2024 - 1:49 pm

It was the early 1960s, and a young Jerry Vergatos wanted a T-shirt from Las Vegas.

Instead, his dad, returning home from a Vegas trip, brought 10-year-old Jerry something else. It was a roulette chip from the Sahara hotel.

“I got hooked on it,” said Vergatos, who started collecting casino chips off and on until he got serious about in the early 1970s after graduating college.

Now, in the course of a lifetime spent amassing a collection of over 9,000 chips that he said is worth about $90,000, Vergatos is president of the Southern Nevada Casino Collectibles club, which gathered for one of its monthly meetings Tuesday night at Spinettis Gaming Supplies in downtown Las Vegas.

A few dozen or so members of the club, which boasts a membership of over 300, met to socialize and discuss club goings on — like the third annual Las Vegas Collectibles Fall Show, which is set to take place Sept. 20 and 21 at the Gold Coast. The public is welcome and there is no admission fee, which the club hopes will boost attendance.

“I want to see the hobby thrive,” Vergatos said.

Spinettis owner Mikko Melander said the most popular casino memorabilia among collectors are casino chips, followed by cards and dice. The most valuable chips are from the 1940s through the 1960s, a time frame that includes Rat Pack era, from bygone big-name casinos like the Stardust, Sands, Dunes, and the like.

“What people seem to be most interested in are the places that are no more,” said Wendy Schultz, whose collection of gaming tokens numbers about 20,000.

Melander said the level of interest in casino memorabilia collecting, which dipped after the 2000s housing crash, was buoyed by the coronavirus pandemic. The time spent inside during quarantine might have turned people’s attention back to their collections.

“After the ‘09 crash, you know, things of course slowed down in this industry as well. After that it’s been steady, but COVID actually really helped our industry,” Melander said, adding that “people started looking at their old collections” and looking for new items to collect.

Tuesday’s meeting featured a decidedly older crowd. Some of the group’s younger members might’ve been watching a live stream of meeting on the group’s Facebook page, but while Vergatos said there is “some” interest in the hobby from younger people, it’s “not like us,” he said, referring to the older generations.

“I think the younger generation in general just doesn’t collect things, period,” Schultz added. “They’re so tied into their phones.”

Rigo Villarnovo, 77, was at the meeting showing a framed collection of relatively recent $2 casino chips including one from the newly opened Durango.

Villarnovo, who worked in the gaming industry for decades, said he has a collection that includes about 200 casino chips from Las Vegas, about 60 chips from Cuba, and about 500 chips from small-town Nevada casinos.

Some collectors like to focus on a specific niche area, and for Villarnovo, those small-town Nevada casinos are his specialty, or “forte,” he said.

“I love those little towns, and I’m planning on getting in the car soon and going to every one of the little towns and just visiting,” Villarnovo said.

Collectors echoed a theme club president Vergatos touched upon: that their collecting began with, or has ties to, childhood memories and their parents.

“Ever since I was a kid, we would do a vacation to Las Vegas,” said Jim Follis, 71, “And back before I was old enough, I mean when I was like, 12, I had my dad grabbing matchbooks from the casinos here. And so it’s just carried further. And then I discovered chips.”

Follis also listed other items he collects, like playing cards, swizzle sticks, matchbooks, and slot machine tokens.

“If a casino name is on it,” Follis said, “I’ll be interested.”

Contact Brett Clarkson at bclarkson@reviewjournal.com.

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