At age 33 James L. Jackson was on the fast track. Vice president of marketing for a high-powered advertising agency in the early 1990s, he admittedly was earning more money than he could spend, even while buying at major auction houses when he traveled the country on business.
“I came home on the weekend and was just shot. I said I’ve got to do something else,” recalled Jackson, now president and CEO of Jackson’s International Auctioneers and Appraisers, the Cedar Falls, Iowa, auction company.
“What do I like?” he asked himself. “I like art, I like antiques and I like history. And I like marketing.”
The answer appeared obvious: join his father, H. James Jackson, in the family auction business back home. The drawback was that his father’s business, which began as a sidelight to his career as a school administrator, did not need two principals.
Jackson said he was not about to encroach on his father’s territory.
“He held his first auction in 1969. The auctions were primarily seasonal but it grew into probably the largest auction company in northeast Iowa doing traditional types of auctions … the good, the bad and the other,” said Jackson.
Unlike his father’s auction business, the auction house Jackson envisioned would demand his full attention.
“To his admission, business was not his acumen,” said Jackson, who bought his father’s auction company in 1993.
“He graciously stepped aside,” said Jackson.
However, the elder Jackson remained a familiar face at Jackson’s until his death in August at age 78.
“He was like our goodwill ambassador,” said Jackson. “He was great at that and that’s what he loved to do. People would come in and he would share stories with them. When we had people backed up on appointments he would take them to coffee or to a restaurant.”
The younger Jackson quickly began reshaping the company. He bought the building his father had been renting and remodeled it to his needs.
“I was a 33-year-old bachelor who had saved every penny he had made. I wasn’t married with kids so I didn’t have that expense. I had money to put into the business and I kept pumping money back into it,” said Jackson.
Implementing what he called traditional methodology, Jackson advertised in trade publications and through direct mail. He became acquainted with trust officers, probate attorneys and others who had antiques to sell. He joined organizations and did volunteer worked to get his name out to the public.
“It took about three years before we made a good transition and about four or five years before we were completely out of the non-antique/collectible items,” said Jackson, who conducts major auctions approximately every 120 days.
Following the business advice of radio talk show host Bruce Williams, Jackson said he worked 85 hours a week and lived by the No. 1 rule: The customer is always right.
And rule No. 2: If the customer is not right, refer back to rule No. 1.
“(Auctioneering) is the business of performance,” said Jackson. If you don’t perform, you’re not in business. Success is based on reputation and work ethic. You either are who you say you are or you’re not. You know what you say you know or you don’t. People figure that out pretty quickly.”
Having grown up with antiques and auctions, Jackson became a collector when he was still a boy. His far-ranging interests include American militaria from the 1860s to the 1960s, Old Masters paintings, and Russian art and antiques.
“If I had a magic wand I would be director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My avocation is art,” said Jackson, who has no formal training in that field.
Like his father, Jackson said he had the passion to learn everything he could about an object. He is essentially self-taught, having traveled extensively in Europe and Russia. His specialty is Russian iconography.
“That came about purely from my interest in Russian medieval art,” said Jackson. “That’s a small world of people who live and breathe (icons). When the wall came down Russian items started coming westward. People sought us out because we knew what they were and we spoke the language to people who collected them.”
Jackson’s familiarity with Russian art and culture played to his advantage when he met his future wife, Tatiana, a foreign exchange graduate student at University of Northern Iowa.
“She’s an artist, art historian and teacher by trade,” said Jackson.
Yet growing up in Soviet Russia, his wife had little exposure to iconography.
“It was not something that was studied because it was too religious. Few Russians have much knowledge about that,” said Jackson.
His decision to focus on better antiques and fine art has helped the company withstand the current recession.
“There still is a strong market for blue-chip items of any ilk. There are a lot of people who have money and want to put it in something. If you have $100,000 and get a 2.75 percent CD for 60 months, big deal. If you have $100,000 you’d rather buy a tangible asset. You get the pleasure of looking at it and it’s a probably a good hedge on inflation,” said Jackson.
Another effect of the recession that Jackson encounters daily is a market correction, not unlike that of the real estate market.
“There has been a lot of merchandise that people were throwing money at in 2007 and 2008, so I think the recession has forced dealers – whether it be retail, wholesale or auction company – and consumers to get use to the fact that certain items are not worth what they paid for in 2005, ’06, ’07 and ’08, and they’re not going to get the same price,” said Jackson.
An even bigger factor in the trade has been the Internet overall, said Jackson, calling it the “great leveler.” Using various databases available on the Internet collectors can find selling prices for everything from Roseville pottery to paintings by listed artists. Jackson said that thanks to the Internet buyers no longer pay $100,000 at galleries for paintings worth $20,000.
“The Internet has not been detrimental to the auction industry because we’re gaining more end users. Those people are saying, ‘Why do I want to go to a gallery?’” said Jackson, who estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of his buyers are end users, while dealer trade amounts to only 10 percent to 15 percent.
Technology has also helped Jackson’s become a major player from seemingly faraway Iowa.
“Technically it’s easy to do,” said Jackson. “Our city is light years ahead of other municipalities as far as fiber optic, Internet, cable, telephone, T5 communications, the whole nine yards.”
With Cedar Falls having a university and, combined with neighboring Waterloo, a population of more than 100,000, Jackson said that attracting qualified employees has not been a problem. Jackson’s has 20 full- and part-time employees, many having been with the company for more than 10 years.
“Customers like to talk to the same people. You quickly learn that retention is important because your business is only as good as your people – and we have great people,” said Jackson.
By offering personalized service and getting top results Jackson’s can compete with the top New York auction houses, said Jackson.
“The CEO’s door is open. People come in and talk to me. They have instant access. We respond. If someone has something really interesting, if it’s in L.A. or San Antonio, or wherever, we’re there the next day,” said Jackson. “We’re in the business of telling someone here’s what your item is worth, what it should bring, and we’re right 95 percent of the time.
A good example was an unsigned watercolor consigned to Jackson’s auction in June, which totaled $1.2 million. Jackson researched the early 19th-century watercolor of Roman ruins, thought initially to be an English or Continental work, and discovered it was actually done by John Izard Middleton (American, 1875-1849). Attracting the attention of the right bidders, the rare watercolor sold for $100,800, establishing a world record for the obscure artist and archaeologist. An East Coast dealer who regularly consigns European paintings to Jackson’s had acquired it at auction for less than $1,000.
“One of our mottos is that we’re Main Street friendly with Madison Avenue results, ” said Jackson.
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