Where to Put a Gambling Museum?

Collectors Club thinks Vegas is a good idea, but a good host is proving hard to find

You’d think the most natural place to put a gambling museum would be in a casino. So far, that’s a gamble no one has taken.

Mike Skelton wants to change that. The chairman of the proposed Museum of Gaming History wants the museum’s worldwide casino memorabilia collection shown in Las Vegas—his dream location.

“This is still the gaming capital of the world,” says Skelton, a Dallas businessman whose personal casino memorabilia collection includes more than 15,000 items. “This is where it belongs.”

The Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club Inc., an international group of collectors such as Skelton, has raised $108,000 for the project. The nonprofit club has 2,200 members and attracts thousands to its annual Las Vegas convention.

The 21-year-old club is talking with several casinos, hoping one will donate 5,000 square feet to house its artifacts and rotating collector exhibits. This would be a temporary space until the club raises enough money to build near the Strip or downtown.

Organizers say the casino will receive a tax benefit from the donation.

“It’s a heck of a deal for some casino that wants an attraction no one else has,” museum board member Jim Kruse says.

The Museum of Gaming History (museumofgaminghistory.org) has countless artifacts, organizers say, including some with mob ties. Items include chips fused together from the 1960 El Rancho fire, antique slot machines, a pair of Bugsy Siegel’s cuff links, the personal papers of gambling icons such as Claudine Williams and a rare $25 Sahara chip that recently sold for $100,000.

Skelton says a small admission fee is planned for the museum.

With some resorts closing hotel towers after watching occupancy rates dive, finding a casino partner to donate space may prove difficult.

Finding funding may be even tougher.

“People dream their dreams and scheme their schemes,” says Guy Rocha, Nevada’s state archivist from 1981 to 2009. “It’s one thing to want a museum. It’s another thing to build one. Then it’s another thing to sustain one.”

The Clark County Museum, Nevada State Museum and Nevada Historical Society have extensive archives of gambling memorabilia—but it’s often only seen in rotating exhibits. The American Gaming Archives (started by private donors at the Nevada Historical Society) is not yet on display. UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, which has the world’s largest collection of English gaming-related materials, has no memorabilia.

Skelton anticipates a deal with a casino this year, with an opening soon after. If the partnership works out, the museum could stay there indefinitely.

To him, the idea of a museum about casino history is as sexy as a showgirl.

“It’s about more than the naked women or the mob,” Skelton says, “it’s about the history.”