NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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 galleries in North America.
Rau is successfully bucking the trend at a time when brick-and-mortar stores all across the nation are shuttering due to the increase in 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.
"The fact that M.S. Rau is expanding in today's increasingly digital marketplace speaks to not only the incredibly wide variety of objects, jewelry and art they offer but also to their emphasis and dedication on expertise in each of these fields," Elizabeth Beaman, senior director of American art at Christie's auction house in New York, said.
Client and CEO of Michigan's K&M Machine Fabrication Michael McLoughlin bought a one ton marble sculpture at Rau. The 35 B.C. original "Laocoön," is housed at The Vatican, and McLoughlin's version, which was sculpted between 1650 and 1780, measures more than eight feet tall and four feet wide on its base. He said what Rau sells can't be appreciated on the internet.
"We can buy shorts, shirts, TVs, refrigerators and so forth online because we are familiar with them,' he said. "What Rau presents is an experience that you must be present to enjoy. When you go into M.S. Rau it's like a museum, but stuff's for sale."
Benjamin Doller has sold close to $2 billion in art during his 35 years at Sotheby's. Now a chairman at the famed international auction house, Doller said M.S. Rau is an outlier, still advertising heavily in print publications and investing in more retail space.
"Rau's becoming one of the few places where you can still go and see everything," Doller said. "It's become a destination. New Orleans is really the Southern hub for shopping. Some dealers specialize in just one thing like Impressionist paintings, but at M.S. Rau you find the gamut from paintings to jewelry to furniture to silver. He's got to be No. 1 in the nation.
"Retail is changing, but you must give customers a great experience," Rau said. "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."
M.S. Rau Antiques is named after founder Max Simon Rau who opened the antiques emporium 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, Bill's Dad Joe and Uncle Elias, 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.
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 where items will be on sale from the upper hundreds to the mid-millions.
"It's really unique to have this many structures all connected in this way," project architect Jonathan Tate said of the entire Rau property which circuitously stretches through the entire block. "How to maintain the eccentricities of the buildings and make them look like a modern showrooms while looping in all the 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."
"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 fondly remembers doing business with Bill's grandfather Max 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!"
"He likes my money," McCombs said of Rau, "and I make it pretty easy for him to take it. 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."
At M.S. Rau, author and comedienne 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.
"You can really buy something magnificent there, but it's pricey," she said of M.S. Rau. "It takes a lot of money, but they work with you and you can deal with them. That's why I like them so much."
"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 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.
"I'm grateful to be a part of my family's business, and I'm excited about the expansion," she said. "We're committed to finding the next generation of collectors and find them pieces that feel relevant in a world that's changing. Once the new space is up and running, I see visiting M.S. Rau as the reason to come to New Orleans."