Joe and Millie Auksel Are the Picture of Success When It Comes to Selling Low-Priced Art

updated 06/16/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Millie Auksel knows what it is that separates the rich from the rest of us. For one thing, they all read hardback books. ("Haven't you noticed that?" asks Millie. "The rich never come off airplanes with paperbacks in their purse. They are always carrying the biggest hardback books you ever saw.") For another thing, they all have oil paintings in their homes.

This distinctive feature of the flush set, however, is one that Millie, 45, and husband Joe, 46, are working hard to obliterate. As president and board chairman respectively of C.I. International, they have spent the past dozen years selling ordinary folks on bargain art ($49-$169, frame included). Last year's painting sales topped $3 million, making the couple as happy as anyone who's ever walked off a plane with a hardbound best-seller in hand.

Not that Joe and Millie—who work with 30 art agents representing 2,000 painters—are dealing in masterpieces. In fact, a browse through the 30,000-plus oils in their Tempe, Ariz, headquarters would probably give a connoisseur vertigo. There are endless scenes of waves rolling toward rocky shores, portraits of sea captains who look like Kenny Rogers, stacks of stern-faced Indians, unhappy clowns and enough Golden Gate Bridges to span the Pacific. You want something in blue, perhaps, that won't clash with the carpets? You've come to the right people. "We don't sell investment art," cautions Joe. "We don't pretend it will turn into a van Gogh someday. How many do?"

If the Auksels' inventory seems conventional, their marketing is not. Instead of retail stores or galleries, the couple relies on Tupperware-style house parties where independent retailers pitch the paintings to small groups of friends and neighbors. They now have more than 100 such "consultants" in 16 states; many are couples earning pocket money on evenings and weekends.

The home approach not only cuts down overhead, notes Millie; it is less intimidating to the buyer. "I used to go in those galleries, and they would say, 'May I help you?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, show me the back door.' I couldn't afford any of the pretty paintings. They'd run about $300, and we had a mortgage and tires to buy."

Millie was a typist, Joe a steelworker when they married in Hammond, Ind. 25 years ago. Home for the newlyweds was an apartment so small that their 8-foot by 10-foot rug had to be rolled up at the ends to fit in the living room. Outside, railroad tracks crossed through both the front and back yards.

Joe eventually switched to the insurance business while Millie tended the couple's three children. Tired of being housebound, in 1971 Millie began working one night a week selling household decorations—planters, sconces, floral arrangements and figurines—door-to-door around the neighborhood. She was a natural. In her first year she made $20,000, and before long Joe had quit the insurance business to join forces with her. Using their home for collateral, they took a 90-day, $20,000 loan to invest in a business and followed the advice of a friend who steered them to an oil painting supplier. Says Millie, "It sounds cliché, but it's the damn truth—we loved this product and there was a need for it." Soon, "We had oil paintings all over the place, under the beds, everywhere," says Joe. "We didn't even have a business phone," adds Millie. "We'd get business calls mixed in with 'Can Joey come out and play?' "

By the third year they were taking in more than $2 million per annum and had offices. With sales of 2,000 paintings a week, the couple last year packed off to Tempe and a newly built 8,400-square-foot headquarters. They have 20 full-time employees there, and the offices include a training area for future "art consultants" plus a large room where purchased paintings are stretched, framed and readied for shipping. Thousands of the oils are stored in huge gray file cabinets whose drawers are labeled "Southwest," "Barns," "Clowns," "Religious." In the last category, says Joe proudly, "We have everyone from Jesus to the Pope."

These days the couple travels to art shows in their $164,000 pale yellow Rolls-Royce convertible. Millie sometimes dresses to match in a pale yellow suit and wears an eight-carat diamond that could pass for a headlight. For weekends, Joe has bought a 65-foot sports-fishing boat complete with five bathrooms and a built-in Jacuzzi. At night they bed down in Phoenix in a three-bedroom, golf course condo. The town is appealing to Millie, she says, because so many of the buildings are "brand new." An undistinguished Southwest streetscape hangs over their living room fireplace, and nearby stands a bookcase filled with hardbound mysteries, art books and other volumes. Despite those latter signs of affluence, Millie insists nothing has really changed. "When we started making money, I got some hardbacks," she confesses. "I couldn't read the damn things in bed, they were so heavy. I don't know how the rich do it. Now I just buy hardbacks for the house and paperbacks to read."

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