First Dibs Shop Talk: M.S. Rau Antiques
FIRST DIBS INTROSPECTIVE MAGAZINE...
"Until the day she died at ninety-nine, she was the most famous woman in New Orleans," recalls Bill Rau of his grandmother, Fanny Rau First, who helped found M.S. Rau, their family gallery in the French Quarter with her husband, Max Rau, back in 1912. Even afer her husband died in 1964, Fanny continued to come to the gallery and greet its steady stream of visitors from her Captain's chair. "She had a great memory and loved all the pieces," says Rau. "And she took sass from no one: she refused to sell her antique bed to someone once—even though she could no longer climb up into it—just because she didn't like the way he inquired about it."
Rau's memories of his grandparents are as full of reverence as they are of humor. And like any truly great family business, the spirit of the elder Raus serves as a guide to their heirs on a daily basis. "I still think of all the things Grandpa liked to say," says Rau who, like his father, Joe, and his Uncle Elias before him, has worked in the gallery since starting as its errand boy at the age of 12. "He'd always admonish my father and uncle if they came back from a New England buying trip with a chest of drawers that wasn't filled with trinkets for the store to sell. He would say, 'I'm not paying to ship air!'" Rau's first job at the gallery was to unfold stacks of newspapers so they could better be used to wrap up delicate items. ("If my father ever caught me sneaking a peek at the comics, my head was given a little slap," he laughs.)
Now the largest gallery in North America (its current location on Royal Street is just down the block from the original store), M.S. Rau has honed its selection to specialize in American and European antiques and objets d'Art, now arranged in vignettes throughout its 30,000 square feet of space. "We still offer an impressive price range," says Rau, who became the gallery's president in 1995. "For example, we have a lovely piece of American period cut glass, circa eighteen ninety five, for one hundred twenty five dollars, and we have a painting by van Gogh for six million."
Rau's daily duties are certainly more glamorous than those in his days as a young boy, when he would leave the gallery with his hands blackened from newspaper ink. Whether it's a Winston Churchill bookcase given to J. Paul Getty by the Earl of Warwick, a Harry Winston Golconda Diamond (at 5.08 carats, the whitest diamond in the world) or a Royal Ice Pail by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, which was once part of King George IV's silver service, Rau works to secure unique, historic pieces for the gallery's inventory, which he knows would make his extended family proud, "The great qualifier here is 'special,'" says Rau. "If you are looking for your run-of-the-mill anything, you will not find it at M.S. Rau."
Rau does, however, find it particularly exciting when customers bring in pieces that were originally bought at the store decades ago. "One of the great satisfactions of being in business for ninety-nine years is seeing the history of a piece come full circle," he says. "Someone will bring in a table we sold to them back in nineteen twenty one and there will be our original bill of sale in a drawer for twelve dollars. We'll then buy it back for fourteen thousand."
The gallery has become a must-visit destination not only for collectors but also for art lovers. With so much great 18th- to 20th-century art hanging, people staying in hotels nearby often stop by for a visit on days when the city's museums are closed. Ever mindful that the gallery stands as a symbol of endurance in an adversity-tested community, M.S. Rau will host their first exhibition of Impressionist paintings this November, free to the public. It will be the first independent showing of Impressionist art on the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina. "We were shut down for five weeks after Katrina hit the city," says Rau. "But we were the first to open back up, months before most others on this block. It was important to us to open the doors again — we had lots of people depending on us," he says, pausing for a moment before adding: "After all, it's what my grandparents would have wanted.
M.S. Rau Antiques has a stunning selection of antique glass including American Brilliant period cut pieces and Venetian blown glass chanceliers.