Antiques King Rau of New Orleans Ready for a Royal Expansion
By: Leslie T. Snadowsky - Associate Press - Sunday, May 14th
Whenever Academy Award-winning actress and moderator of ABC’s “The View” Whoopi Goldberg travels to New Orleans, she plans a pilgrimage to Royal Street to shop at M.S. Rau Antiques.
“It’s a wonderful place to go and dream,” she said. “I think of what rare and extraordinary things I’m going to find there that I’m not going to find anywhere else.”
Goldberg is one of many loyal clients excited to learn M.S. Rau is expanding its 105-year-old business, doubling its showroom space to 36,500 square feet and tripling its storefront imprint along the 600 block of Royal Street.
“When a building adjacent to yours in the French Quarter is available, you have to take advantage of it,” Bill Rau said. “It may happen once in a generation.”
Rau, CEO and third generation owner of the acclaimed store known worldwide for its American and European antiques and objets d’art, is presiding over the fourth expansion of his family’s empire that employs 50 and generates $70 million a year.
In the past two years he has quietly acquired two buildings near his 630 Royal St. business and is in the process of combining them to create one of the largest antiques, jewelry and fine art beacons of beauty and bastions of bounty in North America.
Rau is successfully bucking the trend in a time when brick-and-mortar stores all across the nation are shuttering due to the increase in e-commerce and online shopping. Instead, Rau is supersizing his showrooms to showcase his high-end inventory.
“The trend does not affect us to the same degree as other businesses because of what we are selling,” said Rau, who currently has three Monet paintings, several majestic Sèvres palace porcelain urns and a 10-carat blue diamond in stock. “Retail is changing, but you must give customers a great experience. The most exciting part of this expansion is we’ll get to exhibit our things the way they should be displayed and the way we don’t have the room to do so now.”
“What he deals with is not a commodity,” client and CEO of Michigan’s K&M Machine Fabrication Michael McLoughlin said. “You can’t look at what he’s selling and appreciate it on the internet. You want to see it, feel it, touch it and be around it.”
One of McLoughlin’s recent M.S. Rau acquisitions was an one ton marble sculpture “after the antique” Laocoön. The 35 B.C. original is housed at The Vatican and was described by Michelangelo as “the greatest piece of art in the world.” McLoughlin’s sculpture, which was made between 1650 and 1780, measures more than eight feet tall and four feet wide on its base.
“Bill has a niche,” McLoughlin said. “What Bill sells are objects that are extremely rare, if not unique, and of very high quality. We can buy shorts, shirts, TVs, refrigerators and so forth online because we are familiar with them. What Rau presents is an experience that you must be present to enjoy. As long as he maintains that rarity and quality, I feel he can continue to be successful even if he has to broaden what those objects are to expand his customer base.”
“When you go into M.S. Rau it’s like a museum, but stuff’s for sale,” McLoughlin said.
As a teenager, Bill Rau worked for his Dad Joe and Uncle Elias at his family’s antiques emporium for $5 a day. When he was ready for his first large acquisition in 1981, it was a showstopper – a bed created by John Henry Belter, an American cabinetmaker of the Rococo Revival that defined formal American furnishings of the mid-19th century. Rau paid $25,000 for it and sold it for $35,000.
Rau said his customers can find a varied portfolio of riches at his store, from Tiffany & Co., Paul Revere and Fabergé, original paintings and sculptures that span the 16th through 21st centuries created by artists including Brueghel, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Rockwell, and jewels including rare colored diamonds, Kashmir sapphires and Burma rubies. Items can cost from the upper hundreds to the mid-millions, Rau said, but the business’ sweet spot is between $10 - $40-thousand.
“We get people here and give them a good experience,” he said. “And while they are here they get a lot of pleasure just walking around.”
Doubling down on that objective, M.S. Rau customers will soon be able to walk through the existing 18,000 square feet of showroom space at 630 Royal St., as well as an additional 18,500 square feet in the new buildings as historic as the items soon to be displayed inside them.
In December 2015, Rau bought neighboring 622-624 Royal St. for $2.1 million and when 616-618 Royal St. came on the market months later, Rau bought it for an undisclosed sum.
According to multiple documents housed in The New Orleans Historic Collection, the two buildings are classic Creole dwellings constructed in 1831 by Dr. Isidore Labatut. With porte-cochère entrances, arched openings on the ground floor, French doors with well-detailed transoms on the upper floors, the twin homes were “the scene of many brilliant social affairs, having been occupied by some of the most prominent families of the Creole aristocracy.”
Real estate records show the two properties are located where the second great fire that swept through the French Quarter on Dec. 8, 1794 originated, where famed Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) lived when he was in New Orleans and where lawyer Edward Douglas White studied and worked before President Taft appointed him the 9th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1910.
Rau is currently navigating the labyrinth of obstacles the New Orleans City Council, Planning Commission, Vieux Carré Commission (VCC) and Fire Marshal pose, and has gained permission to renovate the two buildings, add new rooftop mechanical equipment and a new exterior stairwell and officially turn the two lots into one.
“The party wall will be penetrated on every level so the interiors of the two townhouses will feel like giant showrooms, while the exterior will still reflect the look of the two townhouses,” architect Jonathan Tate said. “What we’re digging into now is how to create a sense of openness inside the existing structures to showcase the depth of scale of the rare works of art Rau will exhibit here.”
Tate said the M.S. Rau properties, which circuitously stretch through the entire block, will be connected by way of the ground floor, new showrooms will be built on the second and third floors of the new buildings and logistical issues are still being worked out on the fourth floors. He said the main entrance of M.S. Rau will move from 630 to 616-624, and the expansion will enable a 100-foot linear presence along Royal Street.
Working with a retail specialist, Tate said he is seeking natural flow and circulation creating usable spaces without encumbering the egress requirements and dealing with spatial and technical challenges.
“It’s really unique to have this many structures all connected in this way,” Tate said. “The new, center building will become the hub, and the property will rotate off from that. How to maintain the eccentricities of the buildings and make it look like a modern showroom while looping in the other properties is an extraordinary prospect. We’re planning a relatively quick renovation, and when we’re done we’re going to give the old space a facelift as well. We anticipate a 2019 opening.”
“In the French Quarter, when your neighbors know you want to expand, they go to you first when they want to sell,” Dorian Bennett, of Dorian Bennett Sotheby’s International Realty, said. “You snap up your opportunities.”
Bennett, a Sotheby real estate agent who deals with historic New Orleans properties, believes the VCC, that is tasked to protect, preserve and maintain the distinct architectural, historic character and zoning integrity of the French Quarter, is supportive of Rau’s plans because he’s a staunch supporter of the preservation of the French Quarter.
“You want to give someone a good customer experience, but it’s difficult to do in an historic building because you have huge limitations,” Rau said. “The VCC concentrates on the exteriors of structures so we’re not doing much to the outside of the new buildings. We know what can and can’t be done, and it’s a balance between what the VCC, the Fire Marshal and the historical preservationists want, and they all don’t always see eye to eye.”
“We have an ugly building now,” Rau said of the existing space at 630 Royal St. M.S. Rau Antiques is named after founder Max Simon Rau who opened in 1912 at 719 Royal St. In 1931, he moved the store to a larger space at its present location at 630 Royal St. The second and third expansions took place in the 1940s and early 1990s when the Raus combined buildings along St. Peter and Toulouse Streets respectively to their Royal Street structure, making up the total expanse of what the store looks like today.
“It’s not pretty, but no one ever leaves here saying so because our antiques, paintings, jewelry, tableware, furniture and mirrors are the stars,” Rau said. “The new space will make them even prettier because we’ll have more space and better lighting. They will be more accessible, and we can show them off to their benefit.”
“It’s about time,” billionaire businessman Red McCombs said. “You can’t walk in there now. He has treasures stacked on top of treasures.”
The 89-year-old chairman and CEO of McCombs Enterprises founded the Red McCombs Automotive Group and Clear Channel Communications and is a former owner of the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Vikings. He is the namesake of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and is also a dedicated M.S. Rau customer who fondly remembers doing business with Bill’s grandfather Max Rau 60 years ago.
“When I first stumbled into that store, my wife Charline and I bought some beautiful and colorful Imari Japanese serving dishes,” McCombs said. “I’m the buyer in the family. Charline doesn’t care that much. Her big concern is where are we going to put it!”
“You can bet if he invested a nickel he expects to earn back a dime,” McCombs said about Rau and his expansion plans. “It gives him another business advantage. When he expands and displays his stuff better, he’ll sell more of it and you’re going to attract more people.”
When McCombs wrote and published “The Red McCombs English & Irish Silver Collection” in 2010, he asked Rau to write the foreword. Rau said it was an honor because McCombs bought a “large percentage” of the collection from him.
“He likes my money, and I make it pretty easy for him to take it,” McCombs said of Rau. “Whenever the mood hits me, I get on my plane and I’m there in an hour. His store is a museum in itself with hand-picked items that Bill invests in and then makes possible for the public to see and buy. He ought to charge admission.”
“He will succeed because he will have more opportunity to get a better use of his products, and that in itself will help him immensely,” McCombs, who has owned more than 400 businesses, said. “He needs this expansion desperately.”
While Rau agrees the new showrooms will help move product, he said being in New Orleans continues to be the real business accelerator. “New Orleans was the largest city in the South for a long period of time, and people who live in New Orleans have a history of being surrounded by beautiful things,” Rau said. “It’s not money, it’s not class, it’s not education that makes one want our pieces of art. It’s exposure. You need a city like New Orleans that appreciates beauty, architecture and antiques, because most places don’t. People come here to shop, and the competition down the block helps. When there are stores up and down Royal Street selling chandeliers or furniture or antiques it helps us because it shows customers this area is where to come to shop, which allows customers to gauge values.”
“You can really buy something magnificent there, but it’s pricey,” comedienne and author Goldberg said. “It takes a lot of money, a lot out of your pocket, but they work with you and you can deal with them. That’s why I like them so much.”
At M.S. Rau, Goldberg purchased 12 place settings from a circa 1860 dinnerware set, with a multi-colored floral pattern and ornate gilding, that once belonged to the King of Hanover.
“Back then, they used to fix porcelain with giant staples so I asked to buy the few repaired dishes that have the staples in them also. I love telling that story to people. I love all that stuff. I learn a lot at M.S. Rau. You see Bill’s things and you say, that’s kind of stunning. I can’t afford it, but it’s amazing.”
“Quality is quality,” she said. “You find a place that you trust and believe in, and you keep going back for true antiques with a pedigree.”
Rau has one more secret weapon for success, even more valuable than the WWII Enigma German (K) four-rotor cypher machine he has on display – his 28-year-old daughter Rebecca Rau. She is in charge of strategic development, represents the fourth generation of the Rau family and is helping to steer the company’s fourth expansion.
Armed with multiple art and business related certificates and degrees from New York University, the San Francisco Art Institute and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, Rebecca sees the future and is the future of the M.S. Rau dynasty.
“You usually don’t have the opportunity to acquire real estate in the French Quarter that often, so it would’ve been a shame to pass this up,” she said. “I’m grateful to be a part of my family’s business, and I’m excited about the expansion. We didn’t have the space before for every piece to feel exceptional. This new space will allow us to create more context for each work, give us the flexibility to grow our business and allow for us to expand in new areas including modern and contemporary art.”
“We’re committed to finding the next generation of collectors and find them pieces that feel relevant in a world that’s changing,” she said. “M.S. Rau is a destination. Once the new space is up and running, I see visiting M.S. Rau as the reason to come to New Orleans.”
“The most important thing to us is what’s best for the customer,” Bill Rau said. “We’re bullish on New Orleans and bullish on our business. We want to create the greatest arts and antique gallery in the world.”