The Story Dealer
“It’s called a lawyer’s coffin,” says Bill Rau, as he points to a wooden table in his showroom. Rau, the third-generation president and CEO of M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans, is conducting a weekly morning meeting with a dozen of his sales associates, briefing them on some of the antique dealer’s newest acquisitions as they walk through the first floor of the 40,000-square-foot-gallery on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
The table is a gorgeous piece, carved from rich mahogany by English furniture makers circa 1910. It’s priced at close to $24,000. But it’s unclear why it would be a final resting place for attorneys.
Rau steps up and opens the lid. An inside panel rises up, displaying a crystal brandy decanter, matching glasses and a cigar box. The table was commissioned by Alfred Dunhill of London for his nascent tobacco company. Fully stocked, it would be an ideal way for lawyers to spend their afternoon closing deals and over-indulging.
Most everything in M.S. Rau contains history and wonder hidden beneath the surface. There’s an art deco table with hidden drawers for poker chips, a glass boot that’s a cocktail shaker, a painting that’s really a mosaic made of tiny marble tiles and a toy-sized guillotine from the 1880s that’s actually a cigar cutter. What looks like a weirdly impractical chaise longue is actually a chair custom-designed for the future King Edward VII of England that allowed him to make love to two women at once. (It’s been reupholstered.)
Upstairs, there’s an art gallery—two stories of impactful paintings from the likes of Monet, Renoir, Picasso and Warhol. Since Bill’s grandfather opened the shop in 1912, it has become one of the leading players in art and rare collectibles nationwide. In 2019, the store made more than $70 million in sales, according to Rau. Last year, despite the pandemic, it managed to do it again.
What has been Rau’s secret to success during a difficult time? And why do clients continue to buy art and antiques, despite the uncertainties of Covid-19 and a global economy trying to recover from a near total shutdown last year? Rau believes it’s the hidden details underneath the cover.
“Every little thing has a story,” he says. “People love stories. Every time they walk by an antique they purchased, they think of its story, of how they found it and the connection it has to their own lives.” At heart, Bill Rau is a story hunter.
The sales team continues its morning tour of new acquisitions arrayed in the first floor showroom. One saleswoman holds up her phone—the other 50 associates are watching via Zoom. Since the pandemic began, only a few have been working the floor. Most are remote, conducting business by phone and online.
At 61, Rau’s black hair is graying around the temples, but he’s in great shape, short and slight, with a wiry build. Most days he comes to the gallery early to work out in a company gym. His green eyes light up as he stops at a small oil painting, roughly two feet by two feet. Paintings are a particular passion for Rau. A decade ago he published 19th Century European Painting: From Barbizon to Belle Epoque, a book with an in-depth look at various movements during what he believes was one of art’s most pivotal periods, a transition from classicism to modernism. The proceeds go to the Rau for Art Foundation, which he established to support artistic-minded students at greater New Orleans high schools.
The work he’s standing in front of now is from a different time and place. It’s a Norman Rockwell, painted in 1955. “The Future of Banking is Bright” was commissioned by Chase Manhattan Bank for its headquarters. It’s a close-up of a crowd of young graduates, looking toward an unseen commencement speaker, faces hopeful and determined.
Rau explains to his team how Rockwell’s works conveyed the postwar American spirit like nothing else. The prolific painter managed to capture the youthful optimism of an entire generation in their faces. Rau points out a young lady with brown wavy hair. She reminds him of his own mother, the first woman in her family to go to college.
How the painting came to him is another story. A man walking down the street near the bank’s New York City headquarters saw a janitor putting the painting in the back alley trash pile one day. The bank was done with it. He took it home. Later, after his death, his family sold it to Rau, and Rau now has it for sale, giving Rau a chance to extol its charms.
Rau says a key to the store’s success has been relationships like this. Having worked in the store since he was 14 and full-time since he graduated from college, he’s known several clients for decades and has come to know what the regular ones are looking for. “Let’s say I know you enjoy wine-related things,” he suggests. “So if I get something new I think you’d enjoy, I’m going to call you myself.”
He’s been talking to clients all over the country a lot in the past year. He assumed the pandemic would slow business down—and certainly some regulars who work in fields like the restaurant and hotel industries have stopped buying—but others are calling more often. “People aren’t dining out as much. They’re not traveling. They’re spending more time at home. So they call to say they’re redoing their dining room and need my help.”
Hurricane Katrina prepared him for doing business remotely. The failure of the levees in New Orleans in 2005 kept Rau and his team away from the store for months and they had to adapt to working online. Now, every acquisition is appraised, authenticated, photographed and posted on their website. The items start at four figures and quickly rise.
It’s a far cry from the company his grandfather, Maximilian Rau, started six years before America’s last pandemic. Max arrived in New Orleans in his late teens after emigrating from the Austro-Hungarian Empire with about $12 in his pocket. He found a job in the French Quarter, which was known back then as Little Palermo for its Sicilian immigrant population. He saved up enough to open a shop on Royal Street in 1912.
It’s easy to forget that before the Civil War, New Orleans was America’s second biggest city, a port that rivaled New York. The postwar decades brought a slow and steady decline as trade migrated from river barges to railroad cars and the Mississippi lost some of its importance. But for much of the 20th century, New Orleans was still the shopping destination for the South, attracting vacationing shoppers from Houston to Atlanta. Bordering the Quarter, Canal Street was home to imperial looking department stores.
Inside the Quarter’s narrow lanes, Royal Street was the place to look for art and antiques. And while Maison Blanche and Krauss on Canal Street were converted to hotels decades ago, Royal is still lined with antique shops and art galleries offering collectibles. Some are humble, dusty shops, filled with bric-a-brac from estate sales—old silver, crystal goblets and toy soldiers. M.S. Rau is the very high end.
But when Max opened shop a century ago, it was much like those other stores. (Bill jokes that his grandfather’s approach was to show up at houses when the owner had died and buy everything.) The business had remained much the same when young Bill started helping out in the 1970s. His father Joe and Uncle Elias ran the store then and he was the youngest kid in the family and the only one who showed an interest. His teenage years were mostly spent sorting through the items that came in.
When he came home from college, they put him to work.
“My father was supportive . . . my uncle was rough,” he remembers. “Uncles want you to work as hard as they do but pay you less than everyone else. But they gave me an incredible amount of authority. They sent me on buying trips at a young age. Of course, the stakes weren’t as high then. You make a mistake on a $300 item, no big deal. You make a mistake on an $800,000 Norman Rockwell. . . .”
He learned by doing. “I remember I once spent $1,200. I went into a house and bought a number of things. One of the things I bought was a wine-tasting set made of silver gilt, with a bowl in the center and four spoons made in the 19th century, in its original box.” His uncle didn’t think it was such a smart buy. “My uncle screamed, ‘We spent years building this business and this kid’s going to bankrupt us in no time.’ The next day, this guy walks in. He was looking around and he asked, ‘What’s that?’ ” He bought it for $1,800. His neighbor was Ernest Gallo and he had never seen a more perfect gift.
“I went to my uncle and said, ‘I sold it,’ ” he remembers.
“ ‘You got lucky,’ was his response,” Rau says as he laughs.
He did make mistakes. He mournfully remembers buying a lot of fancy fountain pens only to discover they were more trouble than they were worth. Pen aficionados would come in, try each and every one and walk out, having failed to find the right fit. “If you’re not making mistakes,” he says, “You’re not buying enough.”
Over time, as he built relationships with clients and the customers became wealthier, with more appetite for rarities, the business grew. He expanded from a 10,000-square-foot shop into the 30,000-square-foot building next door. And he became known across the nation for his expertise and his incredible selection, rivaling the auction houses.
During the pandemic, Rau’s customers have been able to see him in a new way, via a regular series of YouTube chats called “Bourbon with Bill.” Enjoying a healthy pour of whiskey in a crystal rocks glass, Rau will spend an hour teaching the history behind some of the items in his gallery. Viewers can learn how English dining habits changed during the 18th century or why the impressionists had such a lasting impact.
Rau says he’s more of a wine drinker off-camera. He has a particular passion for white Bordeaux, and enjoys Napa Cabernet Sauvignon as well. Rau also smokes cigars, and while he doesn’t smoke as often as he used to, he still loves one regularly. “The thing I thoroughly enjoy about a cigar more than anything else, smoking a cigar with a friend is the only thing you can’t do fast. I can chug a beer, I can drink a glass of wine quickly if I need to go. In today’s world with all the interruptions, it’s the only thing you can sit back and just enjoy. You can’t do it fast.”
Rau enjoys Romeo y Julieta. “I’ve been smoking the
Nicaraguans. I’ve certainly tried some number ones from Cuba over the years.” An old client who was a wrestling referee in international competitions went to Cuba regularly and would bring him back a box of Churchills.
The mention of the word Churchill brings a smile to his face. Rau is a history buff, and Britain’s renowned prime minister is a favorite of his—and not just because of Churchill’s love for cigars and insatiable thirst for wine and spirits. “In America, our World War II experience was so different,” he says. “England was all alone in the world for more than a year. And Churchill showed leadership with no fear.”
Churchill’s estate recently offered to sell one of Churchill’s humidors to Rau. He would love to buy it, but it’s inlaid with ivory and current U.S. law bans ivory imports. Rau has been able to obtain and sell several of Churchill’s paintings during his career. And there’s one in particular he’d love to have back.
In January of 1943, Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt held their summit in Casablanca. North Africa had been liberated from the Axis, and the next stage for Europe was being planned. Somehow, Churchill prevailed on Roosevelt to take two days off at the end of the conference and drive five hours south to Marrakesh. There, staff members carried the wheelchair-bound president to the top of the tower of Koutoubia Mosque because Churchill had insisted FDR needed to see the view of the sun setting on the Atlas Mountains.
The episode cemented the friendship between the two great men and after FDR left, Churchill started painting the only work he would do during the war, a watercolor titled Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque. He would later give it to Roosevelt.
Rau purchased it in 2011 and sold it later that year to actor Brad Pitt for $2.1 million. He believes it is Churchill’s finest work, and he loves the history it represents, of the sun shining on this beautiful landscape, and the growth of friendship between two men who helped lead the world out of darkness.
“About five months ago, I heard rumblings it might be for sale,” Rau says. “I called Brad’s office and said, ‘If this is for sale, please let me know.’ They didn’t call me back.”
Rau did not know that Pitt had bought the painting as a gift for Angelina Jolie. After their split, she decided to sell it. “I bet you it sells for $5 million,” he said during a chat in his library. “I was really distraught when Christie’s got it. I would have loved to get it back.”
Three days later, Christie’s sold the painting for almost $11.5 million. The story behind the painting, and its journey from Churchill to Roosevelt to Brangelina was even more valuable than Rau realized. But he says he still hopes it will come back to him one day. After all, it will make for a great story.