James D Julia auction interview: 'My auction house is one of the Top 10 in North America'
Auctioneer James D Julia tells us how he grew from boyhood collector into a leading global seller...
Paul Fraser Collectibles, Wednesday 19 October 2011
What's it like to sell a Colt Walker hand gun for nearly a million dollars? Find out in the previous part of our interview with James D Julia
James D Julia auctioneers of Fairfield, Maine, describes itself as being the world's leading auctioneer for rare and expensive firearms.
In fact, for over seven years, its firearms auctions have generated an average gross of approximately $10m per auction - something which no other auctioneer has achieved on just one occasion.
The company also has a rare glass & lamp division - one of the top three in the world today - and another division specialising in toys, dolls and antique advertising, fine arts and antiques.
Following past successes for the firm including its sale of a small paper map of the siege of Yorktown which realised over $1m in 2010, Mr Julia kindly took time out to chat to Paul Fraser Collectibles.
James D Julia in action at his
Here, in part one of our interview, Mr Julia offers fascinating insight into how he grew from a boyhood collector into a leading global auctioneer...
Paul Fraser Collectibles: The Julia company was founded by your father, Arthur, in the mid-1960s. Did collectibles play a big part in your childhood and do you have any outstanding memories?
James D Julia: I come from a large family of seven children and my Dad and Mom worked very hard. My Dad was generally a salesman a good part of his working life.
As he and my Mom's interest increased in antiques, the sales position conveniently afforded a certain amount of time that he could expend on antiques and the starting of a small antique shop. Prior to this there wasn't extra money for collecting antiques.
At that time in the '60s, bottles were the craze. During the summer, my Dad bought small things such as bottles, fruit jars, advertising things and during the winter time would advertise them in publications. He encouraged me to get into the business.
He wanted me to specialise in something or collect something. At that time, I worked for my Dad. Essentially he would give me money, I would take a truck, drive out to the countryside, knock on doors and solicit to buy antiques for cash.
I still remember basically the first day that I became an antique dealer for myself. I had taken over the fruit jar business, I'd ordered a new price guide by Schroeder's and I was amazed to see all the different types of fruit jars that I never knew before existed.
That very same day, I went out on the road knocking on doors for my Dad to buy antiques. I was invited into an old farmhouse, the lady said there were fruit jars in the cellar. I went downstairs and found five fruit jars that I'd never seen before in life, they were called the "sun".
These were much different and intrigued me but I really didn't know what they were worth, I offered $1.50 each and we had a deal. I bought nearly all of her other fruit jars and loaded them into the truck.
After I'd gone a few miles, I pulled over at the very first opportunity, pulled out the price guide until I came to the "sun" fruit jar. According to the book, my fruit jars were worth $35 apiece! I had five of them! I absolutely could not believe it!
Of course, the price in the book really didn't mean anything unless you could find someone to pay it. That evening when I returned home, a dealer was in the shop buying things.
The dealer asked me about the fruit jars and I said, "Oh I just bought them, I don't know if I want to sell them." My father took me aside and I told him the whole story. I told him they listed for $35-$40 each and I was anxious to get $35 each for them.
He wisely counselled me that I had the good fortune of having purchased them for a very reasonable price and that I should offer them at an equally good price to this potential buyer. I offered to sell him the entire lot of five for $115. He countered with a $100 offer and I took it.
You've got to understand, I was probably making $35 or $40 a week at the time, so this was a major, major score for me - and it did exactly as my Dad had intended for it to do and that was spiked my interest dramatically in antiques.
That year I went to college and all of the time I was in school I always worked all of my spare time in the antiques trade.
PFC: What kinds of things did you learn from your father?
JDJ: I learned a great number of things from my father and mother concerning business. Probably the most important thing to me was honesty. We were a very small antique business that began doing small country auctions.
Mr Julia's auctions include
I remember one night my father was selling something, he held it up and the fellow in the front row bid $8 and my father stopped chanting, looked at him kind of quizzically and said, "You can't bid on that, this is yours."
To which the fellow replied indignantly, "It is mine and I'm not going to let it go too cheap."
My father automatically responded, "You are absolutely right and you won't have any problem here." He turned around and instructed us to take everything that belonged to this gentleman and put it off to the side and he could take it back home with him.
My father announced that isn't the way he runs an auction, his auctions are upfront and straight and he doesn't perform any shenanigans himself and he won't allow any of his customers to do so. I never forgot it.
In the years to come I watched some auctioneers, both from the country as well as from metropolitan areas entertain, the very thing that my father insisted he would not do. I made up my mind that if I were ever in the auction business, I would model myself after my dad's same honest principles.
PFC: Overall, what have been your highlights from your years in the business?
JDJ: The greatest highlights in the many years of my business have been the interesting people that I've worked with. It could have been an elderly New Englander who was a walking historical encyclopaedia and whose farm had been in the family for 200 years. All of these people have enthralled me with their stories.
One of my biggest problems early on, despite my great successes for my consignors, was the perception by potential consignors that they might not do as well in rural Maine as they might in the metropolitan area.
To overcome my consignor's concerns, I took my specialty catalog auctions on the road so that now the potential consignor's fears about our rural location were allayed because we went to Illinois, or New York, or Massachusetts to conduct the auctions.
But I had a hard time convincing consignors of that and so I followed this model for approximately 15 years. In the late 1990s a major opportunity happened for me, I was selected to bid on a major estate in Rye, New York. It was the Lang Estate.
Mr. Lang was a highly gifted and extraordinary human being. He had a photographic memory and an uncontrollable passion for collecting. He would study a certain genre of collectibles and read everything he could about them - whether it was early photography, scrimshaw, firearms, toys, prints, books, etc.
The man had amassed an incredible array of collections and literally filled his huge mansion there in Rye, New York. The competition was keen. I competed with Sotheby's, Christie's, Doyle's, Skinners, Swann's and a number of other major auction houses.
James D Julia photographed with
I eventually, however, convinced the heirs and their board of advisors to give me the majority of the collections to sell.
This was a major collection - and I was totally confident that I could be extremely successful for them, and I reasoned that dramatic success would go a long way in establishing Maine as an excellent marketing place for valuable things.
The things that I promised the family virtually came true: the auctions were an extraordinary success and even I was shocked with some of the results. As the news broke, the impact was felt all over North America and throughout the world.
Mr. Lang had collected a tremendous number of rarities. In his collection was an original broadside of the Declaration of Independence. The most valuable of these of course is the Dunlap version, it was printed essentially the day the Declaration was finished, it was printed by Dunlap Printers in Philadelphia.
That version is extremely rare and valuable, this was a non-Dunlap version, one that was printed in the other Colonies. The world record for a non-Dunlap Declaration of Independence at that time was $95,000 established by one of the New York auction houses a couple of years earlier.
Mine, however, brought a shocking $415,000!
The overall sale was an incredible success and made headlines not only in New England, but across the country. It generated over $5 million in gross sales and it was the talk of the industry. This served as the "springboard" for the next major movement in my business.
It also benefitted a number of other Maine auctioneers who had struggled with the same bias I had for many years.
Today my auction house, based on gross sales, is one of the top 10 in all of North America. But of the top ten (in fact, probably of the top 20 or 30) auction houses, I am the only one in a rural locale, all others are in metropolitan areas.
"Quality Chinese goods are truly special and I expect them to continue to be hot through 2012..." Watch this space for the final part of our exclusive interview with Mr Julia
Recent and related articles
Guides and analysis
Images: Photos courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine