The Hot Bid: rare Caille Triple Centaur slot machine

The Caille Brothers Co. of Detroit was one of the largest manufacturers of coin slot apparatus in the world. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions

What you see: A Caille (pronounced Kay-lee) Brothers Triple Centaur musical upright machine, built between 1898 and 1905. Morphy Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

The expert: Tom Tolworthy, chief executive officer at Morphy Auctions.

Who would have bought a triple Caille slot machine when it was new? Who was the target market? They were directly available to shop owners, and to operators who were in the business of putting out machines. In some cases, they were sold to saloons, cigar stores or restaurants.

I’m guessing a triple Caille would have been much more expensive than a single. Do we know what they cost when they were new? Pulling it out of my memory, you could buy a Caille triple for $125. [That’s roughly equivalent to $3,700 in today’s dollars.] If you look at early photos of cigar stores and saloons, you see one slot machine, not two or three. Caille triples were probably purchased by places that had a strong clientele and could afford to pay extra.

What advantages did a triple Caille offer over owning a row of single slot machines? Whoever operated a slot machine needed a license. If they had three machines, they needed three licenses. With a triple, you needed only one license. And they could give the consumer more options. With three individual slots, you have the capability for a nickel, a quarter, and a half-dollar slot.

Do we have any clue about how many triple slot machines the Caille company made? No, there really isn’t. There might be 20 standard Caille single upright slots today. Triple Cailles, there might be two known. Of all the total uprights, less than 10 percent are doubles or triples.

Only two triple Caille slot machines survive? Eight triples are known to exist. Two are Cailles. The others are by Mills. There probably weren’t many triples, even in their heyday, though a lot of them got destroyed during Prohibition.

I see the measurements given in the lot notes [62 1/2 inches by 70 1/2 inches by 19 inches], but what does this triple Caille slot machine weigh? I’d guess 250 pounds.

Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

Ah. So it’s difficult to move a triple Caille fast, even if someone tips you off about the police coming to raid your place. The fact that they survived at all is a mystery to us collectors. I’ve seen pictures of federal agents smashing up machines with sledgehammers, and they’re known to have dragged them to the water and sunk them.

What sorts of things have to happen to allow these vintage slot machines to survive to the present? In several instances, the machine goes from a shop or saloon to a family member’s house. I know specifically of several slot machines that came out of a basement in Omaha that had been there since 1906.

So this triple Caille slot machine might have idled in a basement at some point between the turn of the last century and, say, the 1970s? That’s my best guess. I know of others that have been found in buildings that were locked up for several generations, sitting there from the teens or ’20s until the ’50s or ’60s, that were found and moved into collections. They had to have been tucked away where someone was not going to notice them.

Would these late 19th and early 20th century machines have been pulled from service eventually for falling out of fashion? Things were a bit more utilitarian back then. There were advances in gaming technology over time, but not in this period.

How original is this triple Caille slot machine? Has anything been replaced or restored? One of the back doors might be new, and all three of the locks on the back doors are replacements. Aside from that, it appears to be all-original.

Image courtesy of Morphy auctions.

The lot notes say the triple Caille slot machine comes with its original keys. Is that rare? And does it make the machine even more interesting to collectors, or is that irrelevant when we’re talking about something that’s as rare as this piece? Having its original keys is pretty unusual. The more original it is, the more collectors appreciate it. It does create value.

How does the triple Caille slot machine work? There are six slots at the top that all correspond with a color on the wheel, and different odds appear on the wheel. If you bet on white, there’s a 10-to-1 chance of a payout. You could bet on one color or bet on them all, but if you bet on them all, you wouldn’t make any money.

Let’s say I’ve loaded a coin in the top slot. What happens next? The triple Caille has three big handles on the front. You crank one toward the floor to make the wheel spin. It’s all mechanical, no electrics. Once you play it, it auto-engages the music. You get to hear a little tune. There’s also a witness window on the top slots. It’s not your coin that gets played – there are five coins before yours in the slot. If you hit the jackpot, they [the venue owner] can see if you played a slug or not.

How does the spinning wheel come to a stop? It’s a random set of actions in the mechanism. Think of a wheel in the back, but it has teeth. At some point, one of six levers will fall and connect to the teeth on the wheel and stop it. The lever is connected to the color of the coin slot that was played.

So the wheel with teeth is kind of like the wheel on the Wheel of Fortune television game show? Exactly, but it’s a bit more aggressive. The lever doesn’t slow it in its tracks, it stops the wheel right there.

The Caille company called this triple slot machine model a Centaur Jackpot. Do we know why? Is there centaur imagery on the cabinet or the castings? There is some centaur imagery on the castings, but it might not be noticeable in the photos. Caille made a Centaur single. When they built a triple with three Centaur mechanisms, they called that a Centaur.

This triple Caille features a nickel-quarter-nickel arrangement. Do we know why? Whoever operated it knew their customers. They could order the triple Caille with whatever coin heads they wanted. They had more customers who could afford nickel slots than quarter slots.

Does the triple Caille slot machine play more than one song? It actually plays longer than the wheel spins. A single play gets you part of a song.

Would we recognize any of the songs it plays? Likely you wouldn’t. I was playing it for someone the other day and I didn’t recognize the tune.

What is the triple Caille slot machine like in person? It’s an impressive piece of furniture. It has oak cabinetry made by craftsmen. There’s detail in the legs and the castings. When you’re there and putting your hands on it and touching it, it’s a completely different feeling. It’s a massive piece and impressive to see.

What’s your favorite detail of the machine? The originality of it. The mechanism shows some oxidation, but it’s [the cabinet has] got its original varnish and original finish. I also like the music, because of the value of music as an option. Music boxes have been added to machines to increase their value. The music box shipped in this machine when it was bought – I can tell by the way it was mounted inside, and by the way it operates. It’s great to see an original music box of that age.

Have you played the machine? What was that like? There’s nothing electric about it – it’s mechanical. It clanks and clunks and makes noise. When you play today’s slots, you accumulate your winnings and bring a receipt to the payout window. With this, when the coins come out, you hear it. It’s a whole different feel.

Vintage triple slot machines have been faked in the past. Aside from a correctly mounted music box, what other clues tell us this triple Caille is genuine? Of the eight triples known, four are believed to be faked. That doesn’t make them worthless, but they’re not triples. What’s faked about them, generally, is the cabinet. When someone fakes one, they build the cabinet and get three [genuine period] mechanisms to populate it.

What condition is this triple Caille in? It has not been refinished. There are some dings in the cabinet, and there are places where the nickel plating has been rubbed thin, but that adds character. If it had been restored, or had recast parts, we would have put it in the description.

Does the upcoming sale represent the first time a triple Caille slot machine has gone to auction? No. There was one in a Witherell’s auction earlier this year. [The Caille Triplet Musical Upright sold for $217,800 against an estimate of $100,000 to $250,000 in January 2020.]

Why will this triple Caille slot machine stick in your memory? Because the last time I saw it, I was at Mel’s house [collector Mel Getlan, who consigned the machine] in 1996, when he was still living in New York, and I played it for four hours. [Laughs]. It’s really nice to see it again. There’s something whimsical about standing in front of a machine and playing it, and wondering who owned it before us, and were they as excited to play it as we are. Whoever buys it, I hope it brings them the same joy it brought to Mel. It’s a spectacular piece.

How to bid: The Triple Caille is lot 1110 in the Coin-op & Advertising sale taking place at Morphy Auctions from Oct. 29 through Oct. 31. Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.

Tom Toleworthy appeared on The Hot Bid earlier in 2020 to discuss a pair of 1928 Princess Doraldina fortune teller machines that were offered in the same auction.
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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.