The Art of Antiquing

May 04, 2015
My best girlfriend and I have been celebrating our April birthdays every year by going "antiquing" on Royal Street. We shop 'til we drop, then plop down for some cocktails and shop some more! As we browse along, walking beneath balconies dripping with Spring flowers, the street's lively aura pulls us in. It showcases our local talents of Dixieland jazz, a puppeteer, a magician, a living statue, a busker strumming a beat-up guitar, and a silver mime"...we are always surprised and delighted by Royal Street happenings. It's one of the oldest streets in the city, dating from the French colonial era, and it is known today for its stately hotels, art galleries showcasing many diverse styles, and antique shops with a treasure trove of collectables.

Our favorite place to browse, M.S. Rau Antiques, has been a French Quarter landmark for more than 100 years, earning the trust of discerning antiques collectors worldwide. Opened in 1912, their 30,000-square-foot showroom literally overflows with remarkable museum quality collections of fine art, exquisite jewelry and exceptional 18th and 19th century antiques. Whether you are looking for a rare pink, yellow, or green diamond or other gemstones, a Paul Revere sterling bowl glass, porcelain, sculpture, or a masterpiece by Monet or Renoir, you are likely to find it there. As we excitedly browsed the many treasures, we frequently yelled out to one another, "Ooooh, check this out!" We must have stayed for a couple of hours spellbound with the many objects d'art and furnishings. Finally, my girlfriend settled on an antique intricate Limoges Bonbonnière, a small porcelain box in which women would keep strong sweets eaten to disguise bad breath. Antique Limoges Bonbonnières from the 19th century are quite collectible, and in postwar France just about every gift shop catering to tourists did a respectable business selling novelty Limoges miniatures. Today these dollhouse size porcelain pianos, beds, tables, animals, and chairs make charming collectibles.

Bill Rau, a very friendly and personable man, began in the business when he was "about 14. My first job was opening newspapers. We used to bring papers from all the neighbors, and we would use them for wrapping purchases," he remembers. After majoring in business with a minor in art at college in Colorado, he went to work full-time. "I think I was fortunate that my father definitely wanted me to take over the business, and he gave me an incredible amount of authority very early. Even when I was in college I went on buying trips and he let me pick out things," Rau says.

M.S. Rau began in 1912 when Rau's grandfather Max, an immigrant from Galicia, part of the Austrian Empire, opened a shop on Royal Street. "He would negotiate, he worked hard, he worked smart," Rau says. "I think my grandfather had a love of beauty, he could walk into a room and naturally pick out the finest piece in it. The great majority of his stuff he bought in the New Orleans area," Rau says, "but, the person who had an eye and could travel, could make connections and could make a living."

Today those connections might be made online: "We do very well with the internet," Rau notes. In fact, M.S. Rau is "the largest antique gallery in North America in sales." New Orleans was the largest city in the south into the 1950s, and it retains its regional customer base. Another reason for customer loyalty is that M.S. Rau will buy back what they have sold. They offer unwavering service and a 125% refund when you want to trade up! Bill Rau sold King Farouk's bedroom set seven years ago and has it back again. "Because we have been in the business so long, about 40 percent are things that we have previously owned," Rau says of his stock.

Presently, M.S. Rau is handling more artwork than in the past: "We have made paintings a much larger portion of our business," Rau says. Some things, however, remain much the same as in the past. "Royal Street has held its own," Rau says. "It's still family-held businesses. It's not a place you'd see a chain store." 630 Royal Street, (504) 523-5660.

As we strolled toward the intersection of St. Peter and Royal, we noticed that Doreen Ketchens and her Jazz New Orleans band had turned Royal Street into an open-air jazz club, providing countless tourists with perfect Kodak moments. People danced, clapped, and cheered for more as Doreen wailed away on her clarinet leading a call-and-response version of "When The Saints Go Marching In" followed by an adorable duet with her husband Lawrence, "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey," scatting, storytelling, and singing on one microphone, arms around each other, as their nine year old daughter played drums. A second-line popped up as onlookers opened their umbrellas and waved their handkerchiefs as they danced in a long trail, weaving back and forth in front of the band. Doreen and her band even play Jazz Fest; there is remarkable talent to be found in the pedestrian area of Royal Street!

After a revolution or two and a Pimm's Cup or three at the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, we were ready for more shopping. Our next stop was Maison Royale to marvel at the exquisite jewelry featuring sparkling hand selected diamond rings, rare gems and fanciful gemstones. The tremendous and dazzling display is hand selected by both Jack Adams, third generation jeweler from a renowned family of jewelers in New York and Rick Sutton, third generation merchant of fine art in New Orleans. Their elegant selection includes vintage, contemporary, and custom designs to best express one's personal taste as well as a fantastic fine art collection. Maison Royale, a New Orleans tradition, has been located at 501 Royal Street since the early 1960s. (504) 524-5045.

There are many more antique options to choose from on Royal Street depending on your interests from guns, swords, walking canes, coins, furniture, china, silverware, figurines, fine art, to objets d'art. It's an antique shoppers' Mecca that is sure to please any personal taste with many fine restaurants, coffee shops, and street entertainers along the way. Never a dull moment on Royal Street! Have fun and find yourself a memorable souvenir to treasure!