Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000 | 11:07 a.m.
Charles Manson and his followers once mugged for the camera in front of it. Another man stripped naked and waited for the word "cheese."
It was one of the most memorable public displays of cash in a town built upon mankind's lust for the dollar.
Benny Binion's $1 million display, alas, is no more.
The display at Binion's Horseshoe, a must-see downtown Las Vegas landmark since 1964, was quietly sold in December by Horseshoe owner Becky Behnen, daughter of late Binion family patriarch, Benny Binion.
Behnen wouldn't identify the private collector who bought the collection of 100 $10,000 gold certificates, or how much was paid, other than to say the price tag was "substantial." The sale was completed after the collector approached Behnen through a third-party broker.
Though signs promoting the huge cash display still sit astride the entrance to Binion's, the horseshoe-shaped display sits empty in the casino's lobby, a reminder of old Las Vegas history.
"It would be fun to write a book about the display ... so many things happened in front of it," Behnen said. "Now I'm having nostalgic thoughts. Kind of a part of me went with it."
The display was the largest single collection of $10,000 bills in existence. Distribution of the megabill, featuring the portrait of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase, was halted by the Treasury Department in 1969. Though the bills are still legal tender, they are removed from circulation once they're obtained by banks.
Today, the Treasury Department says only 340 $10,000 bills remain in circulation -- meaning the Binion's display accounted for a full 30 percent of the bills in circulation. That made the bills far more valuable than their face value.
"A million dollars just doesn't have the magnitude it had at one time," Behnen said. "People are not as impressed about a million dollars as they used to be. When it first went up, it was like looking at a billion dollars."
But because of the rising value of the bills, security costs were increasing substantially, Behnen said. In addition, the property was missing out on interest payments on the cash.
"The general public didn't see that increase in value," she said.
The cash display, which has roots dating back 46 years, has had a long and colorful history in Las Vegas. It's estimated more than 5 million visitors had their photos snapped in front of the display over its history.
"Vegas has become so blase about everything, but it's still what Vegas is all about ... money," former Binion's owner Jack Binion once said.
The display first went up in 1954, the brainchild of former Horseshoe owner Joe W. Brown. At that time, the bills were uncirculated and in sequence.
"Those would've been worth a lot more today," Behnen said.
But the value of the cash became too much to resist, and the bills were cashed out in 1959.
At that time, Behnen said, her father called in a Brinks armored car. But he didn't put the cash in the truck -- instead, he sent the truck on its way as a decoy, and took the cash to the bank stowed away in his cowboy boots.
In 1964, Binion decided to revive the display, and scoured the country for 100 new $10,000 bills. The display went back up, and would stay up for the next 35 years. Binion would often pose in front of the cash, wearing his cowboy hat, in publicity pictures for the Horseshoe.
Until early 1999, Binion's supplied photographers to provide free photos for visitors, and hundreds of tourists would line up to have their photos snapped in front of the cash.
Cash makes people do funny things. The Binion's cash horde was no exception.
One day, a man suddenly disrobed in front of the cash display. Instead of calling security, the photographer simply snapped the photo so the man would put his clothes back on.
Celebrities lined up for photos as well. One of the most notorious visitors, Behnen said, was Charles Manson and his "family," who dropped by to get their photo taken while they were staying at Furnace Creek in Death Valley.
After Manson's arrest, the FBI dropped in with a search warrant and promptly confiscated the picture. To this day, the FBI still has the only copy of Manson's photo with Binion's million dollars.
There's no word on what will replace the million-dollar display, though Behnen vows a new display will take its place. It won't be easy to duplicate with cash -- the largest bill in circulation today is the $100, and a million-dollar display made of $100 bills would take up 100 times the space of the old display.
Behnen said she's talked to the U.S. Mint about possible new displays, and said one intriguing thought is replacing the display with a new display of millennium coins. Still, she's keeping quiet on what the new display will finally be.
"A lot of people have approached me about new, more updated displays," Behnen said. "What I'm going to do, I don't know yet, but I'll do something."
An uncirculated $10,000 bill goes for about $75,000 on the open market, said Mark Scott, owner of Sahara Coin in Las Vegas. But the value of the Binion's bills would be dragged down substantially by the glue used to hold them in the case.
"That's kind of like selling a Picasso that's been shellacked," Scott said. "The value because they came from Binion's is another story."
Scott expects the bills could be resold at auction for about $20,000 apiece.