13 Mar Luxuries of the Past: Interview with Bill Rau of M.S. Rau Antiques
In the luxury goods industry, antiques are the widely considered to be the king of the proverbial jungle. While many people can splurge on a nice new wristwatch or a recently-released exotic car, only the truly fortunate can come to own one-a-kind paintings from 19th century masters or 100-year-old elephant tusks carved by expert Japanese artisans.
As an industry which seamlessly combines the fine arts, history, and sometimes even archaeology, the world of antiques is every bit as fascinating as it is luxurious. We were very pleased to be able to speak with Bill Rau, CEO of New Orleans’ fabled M.S. Rau Antiques, to learn more about this exciting luxury industry…
Luxury Branded: How did you come to be involved in the antique business?
Bill Rau: M.S. Rau Antiques was founded in 1912 by my grandfather Max Rau. My father Joe Rau and uncle Elias Rau ran the business well into the 1990s. I started working at the store when I was 14, crumbling old newspapers for packing, polishing silver, doing whatever needed to be done. At one point, there were three generations of Rau’s working at the gallery. I learned every aspect of the business, from finding and buying antiques to selling them. After I graduated from college with a degree in business, I came to work full time at the gallery. I had the good fortune to learn from two of the best in the business… My father Joe and my uncle Elias. I just soaked it all up. These two men, who had learned from their father, were extremely knowledgeable about antiques and business. When they retired, I took the reins.
Luxury Branded: You recently published a book about 19th century paintings. What attracted to you to art of that era in particular?
Bill Rau: I published the book From Barbizon to La Belle Époque, Ninteenth-Century European Painting in 2012. The book was over 2 years in the making and was truly a labor of love. I chose to explore 19th century painting because, unlike most other centuries, artistically, the 19th century was incredibly diverse… Witnessing new artistic movements from realism to impressionism, and reinventions of traditional pursuits such as landscapes and Venetian views. This was a century of revolution, innovation and rebirth, so beautifully and eloquently captured by a host of extraordinary artists in ways that had never been seen before. The sheer scope and artistic dynamism of the century inspired me to write the book.
Luxury Branded: When you’re looking for new antiques to acquire and sell, what sort of things are you searching for?
Bill Rau: The question we ask when acquiring an item for the gallery, whether it’s a painting, or a piece of jewelry, or a fine piece of silver, is this: Is this the very best of the best? And when I say that, I don’t always mean, is this the most expensive piece. I mean, is this the best of its class. We look for rarity. We look for quality and craftsmanship. Was the item crafted by an important maker? Is there a particular historical significance to the piece? Is this item unique? Is this piece intriguing? When acquiring paintings, we not only consider the artist and the condition, but we also look for beauty and the highest quality for the artist. We think we have one of the most exciting collections of antiques, fine art and jewelry in the world. Our clients love that we offer such a diverse collection… And that collection is built on the foundation of quality, importance, rarity and beauty. In other words, we always strive to acquire the very best of the best… From paintings by Renoir and Monet, to silver by Tiffany and Paul Revere, to jewels hailing from Golconda and Kashmir. You are also likely to find something unexpected like a rare meteorite fragment or a dinosaur egg. Just recently we were able to acquire a magnificent and extremely rare cross and ring that once belonged to Pope Paul VI, whose papacy lasted from 1963-1978. You really never know what you will find!
Luxury Branded: What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between selling antiques online, and selling them in person at your brick-and-mortar store?
Bill Rau: Well, this is the challenge. As people become more and more accustomed to doing business online, the challenge has gotten a little easier. If we had our way, we would have every customer visit our gallery. The sense of being in the gallery, surrounded by so many extraordinary pieces is hard to duplicate online. One of the biggest challenges is conveying a sense of scale and place. A piece that may look very small online, may indeed be monumental in person and vice versa. Nothing can replace being able to hold a piece in your hands, or getting up close to inspect it. It’s like having seen the Mona Lisa in countless books, magazines, postcards etc… When you finally see it in person, it’s just a different experience; the painting is the same, but the emotion of the moment is very different. In the gallery, our sales consultants can offer information and commentary and answer questions right on the spot. That being said, we do our best online to provide images and copy that best convey the whole essence of an item. We also attach any certificates that are available that back up what we say. And, we offer a number of ways to communicate with our sales team. That’s where the trust factor comes in play… We need to make sure our clients know that what we are offering is the best of the best and even if they can’t be in the gallery to see it in person, they can be assured that it’s exactly as we describe it online, in an email or over the phone. And, if they love it in the picture… When they see it in person they will be thrilled.
Luxury Branded: Do you find the trust is there online or is there a continuing need for a direct physical sale?
Bill Rau: Building trust online is extremely important to us. It helps that we have been in business since 1912 and that we have a reputation for quality and service… We strive to convey that message online in every way possible. No doubt, it is easier to build trust when you have the luxury of a face-to-face meeting with a client, but we have tried to put in place various tools online to help build trust. For example, we have a 125% guarantee in place so our customers know that we stand behind everything we sell. We place a great deal of importance on the quality of our photographs and the research and copy behind every item. This is how we convey our expertise and how we build trust. And, we work every day to provide exceptional service and the very best antiques, art and jewelry to our clients who in turn write great reviews online, tell their friends about us, etc.
Luxury Branded: What are some of the ways you’re planning to use social media to help drive sales in the coming years?
Bill Rau: We are rather new to the social media arena. We now have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram. We currently use these social sites as tools to stay in touch with our clients and potential new clients. It’s a great way to share ideas in ways that we wouldn’t really do on the website. For example, we can share behind-the-scenes photos of the gallery, or events around New Orleans, or pictures from the many shows which we exhibit at around the country. For now, these are great communication tools and we will continue to explore how to best utilize those tools to enhance our clients’ online experience with our gallery.
Luxury Branded: What do you have planned next for M.S. Rau Antiques?
Bill Rau: As we embark on our next 100 years in business, we will continue to seek out the finest antiques, works of art and jewelry available and we look forward to providing our customers with the highest level of customer service. We embrace the possibilities that technology and the ever-expanding role of the digital world have placed in our path with even better online capabilities and expanded reach to clients around the world.
Luxury Branded: Where can people reach you physically, online, and socially?
Bill Rau: We are located at 630 Royal Street in the heart of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. You can also visit our official website at RauAntiques.com or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, and Pinterest.