For the past 102 years, M.S. Rau Antiques has been selling rare and precious objects from its landmark store on Royal Street. It is not only the second-oldest art and antique gallery in New Orleans, but also, according to its owner, the largest purveyor of rare fine art in North America.
Now through May 4, Rau is also hosting an exhibition – its first in three years — called Innocence, Temptation, Power, focusing on women in art. Among the 53 works on view are pieces by Van Gogh, Matisse, Breughal, Renoir, Norman Rockwell.
CEO Bill Rau is a third-generation purveyor of such one-of-a-kind things. As with so many multi-generational New Orleans business owners, he never considered doing anything else.
“I grew up in the business and started working here part time when I was 14,” Rau says. “It was something that I knew that I always wanted to do. As a friend of mine told me, in a family business the road to the top is a lot shorter, but it’s a lot rockier.
“I learned a lot very quickly. One good thing about working with your mother, father and grandmother is that if you mess up, there is no hesitation in them telling you so, whatsoever. You learn your mistakes quickly. But it was also the greatest learning curve that one could ever imagine because I was thrown in and expected to perform.”
So how does one develop a feel for what is rare and wonderful, and what is not?
“The easiest way is to buy the wrong thing once and then get yelled at for about two weeks,” Rau says with a laugh. “You learn so much by handling the pieces. There was never a do not touch policy. That was never our policy and still isn’t. People are amazed that you can come in and stand in front of a Van Gogh or a Monet. And that’s the way we prefer it. We want to be open. We don’t want to be a stuffy place where you don’t feel welcome. Even as a child I was expected to move expensive things.”
Those expensive things have long been a New Orleans hallmark for American shoppers.
“Up until 1962 New Orleans was by far the biggest city in the South. We were far bigger than Houston or Atlanta and Orlando or Charlotte didn’t exist,” Rau says. “New Orleans was also the shopping center of the south. People would come here from all over, and New Orleans was multicultural. New Orleans had everything. Whatever one’s desires were, they could typically come to New Orleans and achieve their goals. And because of that, we were known all over.”
Nowadays, buyers don’t necessarily have to come to New Orleans; Rau can go to them.
“As the word has changed and the world has gotten much smaller, our footprint has become slightly larger,” Rau explains. “With the advent of the digital age, it’s a whole new world for every business. We have certainly embraced it. We have a website obviously, and we do an online business and we do a lot of online marketing. We’re making sales to people in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and Egypt in the past week that we would never have done prior to this.”
These days the art, too, often comes to Rau.
“One thing that the digital age has definitely changed is the way that we find objects. We advertise a lot and it utterly amazes me how many things we get offered. Now, we may buy one out of every 150 that we get offered but we might get offered 250 in a week. So finding objects, sometimes they find us. Every object is different. I can’t tell you there’s a standard formula for being able to find certain pieces a certain way because that just doesn’t exist.”
So what exactly is Bill Rau looking for when he puts on a state-of-the-art exhibition, or chooses an exquisite piece of jewelry, a perfect period chair, or a painting extraordinaire?
“What we look for is a superior object, obviously at a fair value,” he says. “And that could be anything. And it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s our belief financially that people who buy great pieces come out much better in the long run than people who buy average pieces. I just read a quote by Warren Buffet that said it’s far better to buy a good company at a fair price than a fair company at a good price. And it’s really the exact same thing with works of art or antiques or objects. Historically you’re going to do much better if you buy something great than if you buy something average. And we’re looking for that piece to buy.”
“Just being third generation here, the thought of leaving New Orleans never entered our mind. Family is important, my family’s from here, my wife’s family is from here, so leaving was never something that we would ever consider. We certainly considered expanding over the years. We have a commitment to New Orleans. New Orleans has been a good part of our success.”
The current exhibition, says Rau, is a way to give back to that community. Only about half the paintings are for sale; the intent is edification and education. The Rau Arts Foundation supports local art endeavors, and offers college scholarships to high-school seniors.
Below are several of the artworks from the show, with comments from Rau.