William Rau is the CEO of M.S. Rau Antiques, a renowned New Orleans company that has been in business for 101 years. His grandfather began the company in 1913 in New Orleans, Bill’s father carried it further, and now it is Bill’s turn. He is taking the company in new directions, through publishing, events, social media, and philanthropy.
To collectors, and others who understand the historic provenance and the deeper metaphoric terroir of one-of-a-kind objets’d’art, paintings, jewelry, M.S. Rau Antiques is certainly on their speed dial. Last month, in Palm Beach, M.S. Rau Antiques exhibited a significant collection of 18th and 19th-century paintings by Monet and van Gogh, silver by Paul Storr and Hester Bateman, and an exceptionally rare Golconda diamond from India.
Mr. Rau grew up in a family business, where in a day, they could sell Fred Leighton designed pink diamond earrings ($148,500), as well as an original harem lock and key– made of inlaid gilt bronze, used to lock the entrance to a harem in a wealthy Ottoman nobleman’s home ($34,850), and a George IV snuff box ($18,850), rendered in 18k yellow gold, engraved with the royal crest and three Roman goddesses. And as Mr. Rau said, a classic understatement,“ In this business, there is no average day.”
The diversity of provenance knowledge, needful in a business combining both practicality and artistic sensibility, underscores a different way of seeing, defined by a true collector’s instinct. In a recent interview, I asked Mr. Rau about this, and how he sees the many levels that create the collector’s instinct.
Pursuitist: I believe, after having interviewed many collectors over the years, there are a collector’s instinct and a collector’s eye that many people just don’t have. One gentleman who used to buy historic homes, told me that the voice of home spoke to him, and he knew it was authentic. Do you have that sense and sensibility? And how has it been shown in your professional life of collecting and selling antiques?
Rau: Every day we come across pieces of art, furniture, jewelry and other material that looks authentic. Much of it is, but even at that level, we have to unite what we see and what we know. We have a lot of information held in our brains, but then we say that every artist has a great day an average day or a good day. We acquire only those pieces that come from a great day. These objects speak to us in a true voice.
Pursuitist: Could you explain a time when you learned from your collector’s instinct?
Rau: Well, I can think of one time, it was my father’s instinct that was right, and I certainly learned from it. A beautiful piece of furniture was brought in, and I thought it was English. He thought it was Dutch. We had some differing thoughts about it, but in the end, he was right. He saw the wood and the finish in a different way, and he deduced from his experience that it was Dutch. He is still usually right. He is now 87 years old, and I still learn from him.
As regards how he knew, and how I know, I can only say that seasoned collectors have a sixth sense about things, in the same way that some people think they can sense what others are thinking. We as antiques and art collectors can read antiques, can read objects. We come across authenticity and fakery everyday, and we come to understand what is real and what isn’t.
It is a vital lesson, and I am sure this awareness comes from both knowledge and intuition working together.
Pursuitist: You are the third generation owner of M.S RAU Antiques and fine arts — where were you educated, did you go to college, and what did you study? Or was the family business experience, so steeped in art and art history, education enough?
Rau: The family business experience was such a unique opportunity to learn, but I did go to college, and majored in business and art history, not surprising! But I wrote a book recently, entitled, 19th Century European Painting: From Barbizon to Belle Epoque. It was published last year and I am gratified it has done well, as it is on one of my favorite subjects – a period in art that covers the Barbizon School, sporting art, Pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism and Venetian art. Closing each chapter are brief biographies of those artists who lead each movement or painting genre. .
Pursuitist: You said last year 2012 that your favorite painting that was acquired by you and sold, was one by Winston Churchill portraying the Tower of Katoubia Mosque at sunset. The Tower of Katoubia was retailed at $2,950,000. Since then, have there been any other objects or paintings that you have found to be almost as beautiful and intellectually enriching that you have acquired and then sold?
Rau: As far as another painting that recently sold that I was connected with – Champ d’Iris Au Matin, Giverny (Field of Irises in the Morning, Giverny) by Claude Monet. We’ve had the pleasure to own several Monets but this painting really took our breath away. Monet lived in the village of Giverny for over 40 years and this present work captured a piece of the town’s landscape like no other artist (and many painted there). Monet’s ability to portray nature at a point in time was his most appreciated attribute. His use of color and texture in Champ d’iris au matin, Giverny reminded us as to why Monet is considered the father of Impressionism – its his ability to transform a fleeting moment into something timeless and eternal. He does that perfectly in this painting. In fact, just looking at it makes one feel calm and relaxed, as if you are actually in nature. The price was $3,850,000.
I liked this painting so much that it we asked to borrow it for our Impressionism Exhibition. It served as the exhibition’s anchor – the first painting tour goers saw!
Another object I loved, due to its existence and provenance, is the spectacular 3.02-carat Golconda diamond, priced in the seven figure range — among the whitest diamonds in the world, and is one of the few perfect Golconda diamonds that have ever come on the market.
Known as the Ultimate Diamond, this stone represents Golconda rarity and extreme scarcity. The name “Golconda” refers to the ancient city in India where the diamond trade flourished in the 18th century. Golcondas have been coveted and owned by the world’s royal houses. In fact, the Hope Diamond, the Agra Diamond, the Darya-i-Nur in Iran and the Koh-i-Noor (part of the British Crown Jewels) are all Golconda diamonds.
Pursuitist: Finally, I want to discuss your philanthropic endeavors –please discuss the Rau for Art Foundation. How did it begin, and why do you think it is important.
Rau: We were raised to believe that we are part of a greater whole – we are not alone in appreciating and nurturing young artists – those who have great ability but do not have the resources to further their education. So we wanted to create a platform for hp your artists go to art schools and colleges.
Last year, we launched of Rau for Art Foundation, a non-for-profit program and art contest targeting high school art students in the 10th to 12th grades in local school districts. Besides promoting art appreciation, there is prize and scholarship money totaling $17,000 that will be awarded to winners and their high school art departments, and winners’ artwork will be exhibited at M.S. Rau Antiques and Fine Arts in March. The panel of guest judges included local artists Alex Beard and Steve Martin, plus local musician Jeremy Davenport and local attorney Christine Guillory.
Reasons and motivations for collecting antiques or owning just one are as diverse as those who buy, but a major one, according to Mr. Rau, is its opportunity to commune with history in quite an unusual way. Owning a piece of history, knowing its provenance, allows the owner a specific knowledge of time and place, and if the owner is fortunate, can relate it to a more generalized cultural evolution and perhaps revolution as well.