Fairfield’s Julia a hidden gem in the high-end auction world

Posted March 20, 2009, at 11:15 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

Ask James D. Julia about his auction house and you’re likely to end up listening to a rapid-fire, five-minute pitch that would make any auctioneer proud.

Yes, Julia works out of humble Fairfield. Yes, he’s a Mainer. And yes (you quickly learn, after listening to the man talk about the business that bears his name, and that he’s understandably proud of), James D. Julia Inc. is not your garden-variety auction company.

Not even close.

“We are the leading firearms auctioneer in the world,” Julia boldly pronounces, right off the bat, in way of introduction. “Not New England. Not the United States. The world.”

Right there on busy Route 201, not far from the mighty Kennebec River and hundreds or thousands of miles from the customers who flock to his auctions and bid via phone.

As you drive past the facility, it’s easy to assume that it’s just another Maine auction house catering to weekend visitors who are looking for a bargain that someone else decided he could live without.

And even in Fairfield, where Julia is well known, he said the business may suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. Step outside of rural central Maine, however, and talk to folks who pay close attention to high-end auctions, and you’re likely to find plenty of people who wouldn’t dare miss a Julia’s catalog, or overlook one of his auctions.

“I’m known in Sweden and Russia and England and Alaska, but the guy who lives 10 miles up the road doesn’t know [what Julia’s does],” Julia said. “I know that. I realize that.”

Here’s what many Mainers don’t realize, and what Julia has relied on to make his mark in the auctioning world: At certain times of year behind the doors of his spacious facility, you’re likely to find some of the most impressive collections of collectibles in the world.

Julia isn’t all guns, you see.

He also has divisions that specialize in glass and lamps, toys and dolls, and fine arts and antiques. Each, he says, enjoys a fine reputation in its field.

But earlier this week, Julia’s was filled with gun aficionados from across the country for a two-day auction of high-end firearms.

In those two days, one lot sold for $850,000 and several others went for well over a half million dollars. A single collection of 40 pieces sold for nearly $5.25 million. The entire auction grossed almost $11.4 million.

All in little Fairfield, Maine.

Of course, none of that surprised the auctioneer himself, who presided over the sale.

That Julia talks a good game shouldn’t come as a surprise — auctioneers are paid to talk, after all.

But he’s got the numbers to back up his lofty claims.

“We consistently in recent years had the highest grossing [gun] auctions ever in history,” he said. “Last year in March we had one that did $12.7 million. Nobody’s ever come anywhere even close to it, not even at any auction house in the world. And in October, we set the world record for the most expensive single gun ever sold at auction, at nearly a million dollars.”

With that said, it’s important to note that Julia’s no blowhard. Watch the showman at work and you’ll see subtle indications that no matter how successful his company becomes, you’ll never take Maine out of the man.

During Tuesday’s sale that featured the Colt collection of Dr. Joseph A. Murphy, for instance, the auction ground to a brief halt while staffers dealt with some paperwork.

Julia filled the void by launching into a well-worn Maine joke about a poacher named Pierre, which left the well-heeled crowd laughing.

And though he talks for a living, he also listens: In the back of the auction hall is a suggestion box that Julia says has existed for 15 years. Comments from the bidders are taken seriously, he said.

While Julia has been in the auction business for more than 40 years, he said it took some time to build up a reputation that would entice sellers to trust him with their valuable goods.

“Even though you do things right, even though you do things your competitors don’t do when you’re the new kid on the block, even if you perform admirably the first time, that could be a flash in the pan,” Julia said. “So it takes time to develop the collecting community’s confidence.”

Julia did that by competing hard for people’s business early, and later developing a system whereby all of a individual seller’s goods — whether high-end or not — could be handled appropriately.

Working in cooperation with his sister Jeannine Poulin, who owns neighboring Poulin’s Auction Co. with her husband Steve, allowed him to do that, Julia said.

Julia illustrated by forming an imaginary triangle with his hands, explaining that the goods that exist in the upper tip of the triangle — the most valuable — are the ones he wanted to sell.

His sister takes the items from the middle of the triangle, the mid-priced goods, and both thrive, Julia said.

One of this week’s bidders, collector and dealer Martin Lane of New York City, agreed with Julia’s assessment of his company’s role in the worldwide auction industry.

And he ought to know: Lane is a high-scale player in that industry. Tuesday alone, Lane bought three lots from the Murphy collection that set him back a cool $2 million, give or take.

Lane, who often makes the trip from the Big Apple to Fairfield for auctions, said the reason for the company’s success is simple.

“It has a lot to do with Jim as a person, his character,” Lane said. “He’s an honest, sincere guy. I’ve known him for quite some time and he’s always been fair and reasonable, he’s a no-nonsense type of person. When he tells you something, you can believe it. And most people who are collectors like his auctions.”

Lane said Julia’s staff is essential as well — Julia agrees — in order to make sure items put up for auction are exactly as described.

“He’s got a very good staff of experts. He uses other people that have expertise above and beyond, perhaps, what his people might have,” Lane said. “His descriptions are very accurate and you know what you see is what you get.”

What you get is top-end collectibles that are described in beautiful catalogs Julia’s produces for each auction. The full-color catalogs (this week’s two-day auction featured two such books, totaling nearly 600 pages) are virtual history books with detailed photos of each piece that hits the block.

Want an elephant-hide and leg-of-mutton gun case that belonged to Annie Oakley? This week, you could have had it … had you been willing to top the high bid of $17,000. And before you bid on it, you could have learned all about it (and read an in-depth description of the item) by perusing the catalog.

One bidder who puts a lot of stock in Julia’s catalogs is gun collector Dick Burdick, who traveled to Fairfield from Ventura, Calif., for this week’s auction.

“I had always said previously that a guy was a fool to absentee bid and not look at a firearm and hold it in their hand,” Burdick said. “But [Julia’s] photography is so good that you can bid now absentee. At a lot of other auction houses, I wouldn’t buy absentee.”

Another benefit of dealing with Julia’s company is a limited money-back guarantee that Burdick says is rare.

“Most auction houses, you buy it, you own it, the good, bad or ugly. It doesn’t matter. You’re an owner,” Burdick said. “They’re a first-class operation. They’ve got it figured out.”

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