‘Priceless’ Gato cigar label book lands in the Keys

Andrew Bulla bought this Gato cigar label sketch book from an online dealer.
Andrew Bulla bought this Gato cigar label sketch book from an online dealer. Keynoter

Andrew Bulla wasn’t searching for a piece of Key West history when he went online recently.

“I was looking for replacement parts for my car,” said Bulla, who drives a near-vintage Honda Civic hatchback.

Instead, the string of words he typed into the search box pulled up a Key West cigar-label design book from the 1890s signed by none other than Eduardo Gato, the cigar-making titan whose name is on the 1920-era Monre County government building at 1100 Simonton St.

“All these things were pieced together, drawn together, to develop the final product that Gato approved for his boxes,” Bulla said, gently flipping through the design book, which has several pages of piecemeal design of a grandiose scene. “And there it is on the label: Key West. There’s only one like this in the whole world. It’s priceless.”

Bought from a Mesa, Ariz., estate buyer, the label book contains a signature by Eduardo Gato with the date of ’97.

“That’s 1897,” said Bulla, who added the dealer sent it to him before he paid for it. Bulla didn’t want to publicly name the price but it wasn’t any fortune.

The Arizona dealer bought it as part of an estate sale 15 years ago and wasn’t interested in haggling over it.

“Should this be put in a Key West museum and if so, which one?” Bulla asked in an interview Thursday at his Summerland Key home. “Or should it be sold by a private investor? I’m excited for people to respond.”

Bulla worked in the Gato Building for eight years as an employee of the state Health Department.

That county building is where E.H. Gato’s cigar factory was, his second building after the original 1871 wooden structure burned down in 1915. And it’s where by December 1899 droves of factory workers produced 400,000 cigars each week. From 1895 to 1900, Key West enjoyed $2.3 million a year in cigar exports on average, according to the Key West Historic Marker Tour.

A native of Philadelphia, Pa., Bulla, 62, has lived in the Keys for 30 years and says he is no collector of cigars or their history.

“I know zero about cigar labels or cigars. But I do know the Gato because that was my home for eight years,” Bulla said. “Key West started because of this: Gatoville.”

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen