Antiques King Rau of New Orleans Ready for A Royal Expansion

M.S. Rau Antiques
May 16, 2017 8:11PM

Rau, CEO and third generation owner of the acclaimed store known worldwide for its American and European antiques and fine art, is presiding over the fourth expansion of his family's empire that employs 50 and generate $70 million a year.

Bill Rau, CEO and Third Generation Owner and Rebecca Rau, Strategic Development at M.S. Rau Antiques

M.S. Rau Antiques at 630 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA

   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.

Laocoön Marble Sculpture (1650 - 1780) purchased by McLoughlin

        “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.”

King of Hanover Dinner Service similar to the one purchased by Goldberg

        “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.”


Main Gallery at M.S. Rau Antiques

Fine Art Gallery at M.S. Rau Antiques

Silver Gallery at M.S. Rau Antiques

Sculpture Gallery at M.S. Rau Antiques

Impressionist Gallery at M.S. Rau Antiques

Fine Art Gallery at M.S. Rau Antiques

M.S. Rau Antiques