Without Royal Street, “we wouldn’t be the antique mecca of the south,” says Macon Riddle. Her opinion is founded on experience. Since 1986, she has shepherded customers seeking treasures with her “Let’s Go Antiquing” personal shopping guide service in New Orleans.
The Times-Picayune proclaimed in 1937 “the sale of art and antiques forms an important business in New Orleans” especially in the French Quarter, “where art had its first development in America.” Actually, several of the antique shops listed in that ’37 article are still open, and one, M.S. Rau and Company (630 Royal St.), celebrates its centennial this year.
Royal Street, for much of the 19th century, was an important business address crowded with shops, and with banks located on the corner of Royal and Conti streets. After the Civil War, the street became less important commercially as the economy declined.
By 1880, one of the bank buildings was housing the Peoples Loan Office, owned by Moise Waldhorn, who arrived here from Alsace-Lorraine, then a province of the German Empire on the borderland between France and Germany, in 1868. Waldhorn’s brisk trade in “antique treasures from old Creole families,” as an early advertisement noted, grew into the antique business still ongoing as Waldhorn-Adler Antiques (343 Royal St.), according to his descendent Stephen Moses, who had served as president of the company and related the story of its founding in a 100th anniversary story in The Times-Picayune.
By the 1890s, Royal Street was so well known for antiques that popular poet Eugene Field (best known poem: “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”) memorialized it in verse. “In Royal Street (near Conti) there’s a lovely curio shop,” said Field in one poem.
Another immigrant from Alsace, Hermina Keil, opened her antique store on Royal in 1899. Descendant Peter Moss, in charge at Keil’s Antiques (325 Royal St.), points out that the European immigrants were already used to traveling, so voyaging overseas for new treasures was not unusual. “All the antique capitals of the world are port cities,” he notes. Keil relatives also run Moss Antiques (411 Royal St.) and Royal Antiques (309 Royal St.).
Family members easily absorb the lessons of antique purveying. As Peter Moss says, “One generation learns from the previous generation. We hold fast and strong to traditions and classic designs.” New Orleans antique dealers may be reverent about the past, but they embrace the future and are flexible about change. While once the furniture might have arrived by steamship in wooden crates, delivered direct to Royal Street from the boat, “today it comes in metal containers,” Moss says.
Other notable stores of today also began on Royal Street in the early years: M.S. Rau began in 1912, and Ida Manheim Antiques (409 Royal St.) was opened in ’19 by Austrian immigrant Bernard Manheim.
Bill Rau, at M.S. Rau, 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.”
Stock for the store came from many sources. “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.” In their block of Royal Street they have 31,000 square feet of space.
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 antique dealers will buy back what they have sold. Peter Moss notes that Keil Antiques has bought and sold the same sideboard three times since ’35.
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.
Changes do come. Today M.S. Rau is handling more artwork: “We have made paintings a much larger portion of our business,” Rau says. Also, the Internet has grown in importance as a sales tool.
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.”
Even without leaving home you can still buy antiques via the Internet, or just browse and be a virtual window shopper. The website for First Dibs, a company that has a New York showroom, offers wares from several Royal Street stores:1stDibs.com Some internet sites for Royal Street antique shops are KeilsAntiques.com, IdaManheimAntiques.com, and WaldhornAdlers.com. M.S. Rau has a thriving Internet business at RauAntiques.com.
Macon Riddle’s “Let’s Go Antiquing” website is NewOrleansAntiquing.com.