RECORD! An Orville Bulman Painting Sets a Record for the Artist at Auction

Entente Cordiale, a monumental late 1960s painting from Orville Bulman's Jungle series of works. It set the record for the artist at auction in May 2019.

What you see: Entente Cordiale, a monumental (33 inches by 68 inches) canvas painted in 1968 and 1969 by the late Orville Bulman. Bonhams New York sold it in May 2019 for $112,575, an auction record for the artist.

The expert: Jennifer Jacobsen, director of American art at Bonhams.

Let’s start by talking about who Orville Bulman was, and why his work is still collected today. He was a painter, not formally trained. He was a multitasker. He ran the family business, but painting was always a true passion of his. He spent half the year in Palm Beach, Florida, and half the year in Michigan for most of his life. In the 1960s and 1970s, he did the jungle paintings. Ours [Entente Cordiale] was circa 1968-1969.

How prolific was he? I think he can be considered relatively prolific. He sold over 2,000 paintings and had 41 solo exhibitions.

Do we have a specific count of the works in his Jungle series, to which this belongs? No, we don’t know that, unfortunately.

What do we know about how he worked? We know he didn’t have any official training. He worked in a primitivist manner, but he was very serious about his work. He could put in eight to ten hours a day in his studio, especially before a show.

Where does Entente Cordiale rank among the paintings in the Jungle series? I’d say it’s among the largest and most elaborate compositions of the series.

He traveled to Haiti and other islands in the Caribbean in the 1950s. How might his travels have influenced the look and composition of this Bulman painting? I think you can see similarities in the handling of figures and animals. He tended to simplify peoples’ faces, but he never wanted to create caricatures of island people. On the flipside, the animals’ features are bold and exaggerated. In the Island series [an earlier series of his] and the Jungle series, you see animals and people interacting in a jovial manner.

A detail from Entente Cordiale that shows humans and animals happily interacting--two ride on the backs of giraffes.

Are scenes of animals and people interacting key to Bulman’s work? Yeah, I’d say so. There’s a jovial, joyful quality about the animals and the humans interacting. You find figures riding all sorts of animals. In one, there’s a figure riding a hippo. It’s very imaginative and lighthearted.

Are the plants in this Bulman painting identifiable as real-world species, or are they his own inventions? The plants are fanciful for the most part.

A detail of the top center of Bulman's Entente Cordiale, showing his elaborate, fanciful depictions of plant life.

How does this Bulman painting reflect the influence of Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom paintings? I think mainly, overall, it’s the peaceful unity of humanity and the natural world. Hicks was a devout Quaker, conveying a message of peace and interconnections–that’s present in the Bulman. Its title, Entente Cordiale, means “cordial agreement”. There’s a theme of togetherness. Compositionally, I see similarities in the flattening of spaces. Figures are overlapping, and the spacial relationship is quite close and flat. The animals are close to the foreground and the backdrop is directly behind them.

How does the Bulman painting reflect the influence of Henri Rousseau? I think there’s a lushness in Rousseau’s jungle scenes that are reflected in Bulman. Bulman’s works are dappled with colorful flowers and fruit, and tend to vibrantly pop against dark foliage. And they’re similar in overall design–layering plants and animals and focused on overlapping patterns of leaves. Toward the top of Entente Cordiale, there’s very highly detailed, meticulous work with the leaves and the negative spaces between them.

How did Bulman avoid the trap of creating a cheerful painted scene that isn’t merely decorative? Entente Cordiale is a prime example of Bulman’s work as a sophisticated colorist, who painted complex, highly-detailed compositions. The details all come together to create an overall atmosphere and mood for the viewer, which is an attribute of true fine art. While the animals and details are delightful and charming individually, the work overall and its title convey a universal theme of a peaceful, joyful togetherness that has roots in the traditions of other significant artists’ work, like Edward Hicks.

The Bulman painting measures 33 inches by 68 inches. Is that an unusual size for him? Are any other works from his Jungle series as big? It’s a very large size for the artist, the largest by him ever to come on the market. This is the largest work that the Pollacks [the leading scholars on Bulman] have ever heard about as well.

Would Bulman have stretched his own canvas for Entente Cordiale? He probably would have.

Why was Bulman so adept at luring well-known and well-heeled clients? What skills did he have that other artists might lack? He was well-heeled himself, part of an affluent community in Palm Beach. A lot of high society [members] acquired his work.

I understand that actor Raymond Burr, who also dealt in art, represented Bulman in Hollywood. Do we know how the two met and developed their professional relationship? It’s unknown how they met specifically.

What is the Bulman painting like in person? It’s impressively large with dramatic wall power. There’s a lot to take the time to discover–the expressions on the animals’ faces and the headdresses on the figures… it’s hard to convey in an image, digital or printed.

A detail from Entente Cordial that shows a human figure wearing a bunch of plantains as a headdress.

What is your favorite detail of the Bulman painting? I’m usually drawn to the animals’ expressions. My favorite is the seated tiger looking over its shoulder. Another I didn’t catch until later is a woman with a headdress that looks like it’s made out of plantains. If you glance at it, you’d think it’s a tree. Details emerge as you look closely at it.

A detail from Entente Cordiale showing a tiger looking over its shoulder to make eye contact with the viewer.

The Bulman painting rewards you if you look longer? Yes. The more time you spend with it, the more is uncovered.

How often do Bulman paintings appear at auction? It varies, but roughly one dozen paintings have come up per year in recent years.

How often do Bulman’s Jungle series paintings come up? There’s no consistent trend. Some years, no Jungle paintings come up. Some years, there are two or three.

What was the estimate on this Bulman painting? $40,000 to $60,000, which was the highest estimate assigned to a work by the artist at auction.

What was the previous auction record for a Bulman painting? It was another work from the Jungle series, and it was smaller. It sold for $53,130 at another house in New York in May 2019, shortly before our sale. The third-highest result was $52,500 in 2011.

Does the two Bulman Jungle paintings coming up in May 2019 and breaking auction records for the artist in quick succession reflect greater demand from collectors, or is it just one of those things? We had a much plainer work from the Jungle series perform well against its estimate, and we had a sense that the Jungle series was desirable. But it’s a coincidence that it [Entente Cordiale] came to me and a coincidence [a different house] had another in the same month.

What do you recall of the auction of the Bulman painting? There was a flurry of telephone bidders. Seven competed for the work. During the sale, I was on the phone with one of the bidders.

Was there buzz about the Bulman painting before the sale? There was a strong amount of presale interest. I knew it was a fantastic example. I wasn’t surprised we had good interest. It exceeded my expectations as well.

Were you surprised that it passed the six-figure threshold? Yes. It was a great benchmark to achieve for the market. To more than double the previous record is a great result.

Why will this Bulman painting stick in your memory? Entente Cordiale is a fantastic painting, and was a real pleasure to handle the sale and to talk to collectors who were enthusiastic about the work and recognized a superb example. It was a significant moment in the artist’s market, and it was a pleasure to be involved with that.

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Images are courtesy of Bonhams.

Orville Bulman has a website.

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RECORD! A Caille Double Slot Machine Commanded $420,000 at Morphy Auctions in 2017

What you see: A nickel and quarter “slant front” double Venus musical slot machine, made with an oak case circa 1905 by Caille Bros. Estimated at $400,000 to $600,000, it sold for $420,000 at Morphy Auctions Las Vegas and set several auction records, including records for any antique double slot machine and a record for any machine by Caille.

The expert: Dan Morphy, president and founder of Morphy Auctions.

First, let’s talk about the Caille Bros company, and what its reputation was when it made this Caille double slot machine. They began in the late 1800s, and were known for producing very well-made, dependable machines. They were all hand-built. Caille had the reputation for building the best at the time. [The company appears to have gone out of business in 1937.]

Why are Caille gambling machines still collected today? They stand out now because they were known for making machines that had great eye appeal and great mechanics. They spent a lot of time perfecting their machines, so they’re more scarce than [those of] other makers.

And how is “Caille” pronounced? It seems like there’s no one way to say it... I’ve heard everything–kale, cowlee, kaylee. Most coin-op guys say “kaylee.”

This Caille slot machine is described as a “double”. Could you explain what that means here? There are two slots, two machines in one. [This model accepts nickels in one slot and quarters in the other.] Doubles obviously cost more to make, and were probably made for the most prominent saloons and gambling halls.

I understand this Caille double slot machine is one of three of its type that survive. Do we have any idea how many might have been made? And is this the sort of thing that would have been listed in the Caille catalog and produced only as orders came in? It would have been a special order for the most part. It was top notch, and difficult to make. If I had to guess, they may not have even made a hundred. A lot were destroyed over the years.

Destroyed? They were against the law [in many places]. They [the police] didn’t want to haul them off. They were heavy. They took them to the parking lot and destroyed them. They would burn them–pile them up and light them on fire.

Have you seen the other two Caille double slot machines of this type? How do they compare to this one? They’re all very similar, and all have had a similar level of restoration work. They’re over 110 years old–they’d need refinishing, and the castings and the springs would have to be maintained. I don’t want to belittle the other two, but if I’m not mistaken, this is one of the most original and complete examples known.

And I take it this model is an especially desirable Caille double? It’s considered to be a Holy Grail of upright slot machines. It’s probably the most attractive double ever.

The Caille double slot machine is described as “musical.” What sort of music does it play? You get one play [one song] for a nickel and three for a quarter. It plays classical music. I don’t know the tunes offhand.

So it was kind of like a jukebox? It played music while you gambled? A press of the lever would trigger the music box and make the wheel go round. The music would continue to play even after it was being operated.

Would it play the same music for each slot machine, or did the nickel side play one tune, and the quarter side played different tunes? I believe there was only one music box in the center [of the oak case]. It was a metal cylinder, like a regular tabletop music box, and it was triggered by either one of the machines, the nickel or the quarter.

How would the music mechanism know whether the player had inserted a nickel or a quarter? It depended on the side you played. The right gave you three plays, and the left gave you one. You pushed down a lever [on the corresponding side] to make it work.

How would this Caille double slot machine have been used? It was made for public consumption. They went to higher end saloons and most likely, country clubs. They were expensive back in the day, compared to regular, run of the mill machines.

What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this Caille double slot machine was to make? The mechanics of the machine were standard, but the oak case, the tin lithographic wheels, the iron castings were better than anything else on a regular machine. Especially the iron castings–they were much more elaborate, and much more work went into them. From the coin receiver to the handles, it was fancier.

What’s your favorite detail on this Caille double slot machine? The overall look of the front of it. It has a slant front to it, which is unique. I don’t know of any other machine produced like that. The tin wheels are beautiful. The styling of the iron castings are special. There’s a great look to them, great eye appeal.

Was Caille the only manufacturer that got this elaborate with the iron castings for its gambling machines? They didn’t put them on other machines. This particular model had all the bells and whistles. And it’s also a very well-made machine. These were workhorses, made to last.

Yes. This is a good place in the conversation to point out that, then as now, angry losers would take their frustrations out on these slot machines… [Laughs] You’ve got a bunch of drunks hitting it, punching it, and it’s getting a lot of use. Gambling is gambling.

Do we have any clues as to why this particular Caille double slot machine survived in such good condition? If I’m not mistaken, it was only in two families, and it wasn’t moved around a lot. It was always revered as something special. Therefore, it lasted.

Do we have any idea where the Caille double slot machine was first installed? That I don’t know.

But it wouldn’t have gone to a robber baron’s mansion, yes? It would have been commissioned for a public venue? When it was first produced, yes. But I believe it descended through the families. Whoever owned it originally [might have run a] saloon or a hall.

The Caille double slot machine was sold in working condition. How important is that? If it didn’t work, would it be worthless? It’s all reparable. Guys have been doing restorations and repairs on these from the day they were made. It’s almost a lost art. A dozen guys could take apart and rebuild this entire machine, but not a lot of younger guys could fill their shoes. The number of guys who know these machines will decrease with time, unfortunately.

What is the Caille double slot machine like in person? It’s a beautiful piece. It has great detail, great color, great eye appeal, great presence. Even when it was in the consignor’s house, among the rest of his collection, it stood out.

Did you play the Caille double slot machine? Yes.

What was that like? It was fun! [laughs] A nice, smooth-running machine.

And the 2017 sale at Morphy’s was the first time one of the three known musical Caille doubles went to auction? It was the first public auction, to my knowledge.

How did you set the $400,000 to $600,000 estimate? It is hard to establish estimates for pieces that are unique. But I looked at what standard doubles sell for. They go for a range of $80,000 to $120,000. This machine is 50 times more rare than those others.

What do you recall of the auction? It sold in Las Vegas. We had a good crowd that day, 120 to 170 people there. There were three to four people bidding up to the $150,000 range. At the end, it was two guys, going head to head.

The Caille double slot machine notched a world auction record for its make and model because it was the first to sell at auction. What other records did it set? Is it a record for any Caille machine? Yes. And I don’t know of any [other] doubles that have brought over $200,000.

How long do you think the record will stand? I don’t know. Hopefully, we’ll break it next year [laughs].

What’s out there that could break the record? The same machine, or one of the other two. Now if a true triple [an antique gambling machine that features three conjoined slots rather than two] came up, it would probably bring more money. An original triple should bring $400,000 to $500,000. I don’t believe a triple has ever been to auction.

Why will this Caille double slot machine stick in your memory? Because of its eye appeal, its originality, and because I know how rare it is. I’m in a great position–I get to see lots of private collections. It [this machine] is just not out there.

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Ahead of the October 2017 sale in Las Vegas, Morphy Auctions produced a short video about the Caille double slot machine. It features several closeups on its choicer details and shows the machine dispensing coins, but does not include audio of the machine playing music.

Images are courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

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