Louisiana’s antique trade has weathered the storm

Just as 9/11 is burned into the psyche of New Yorkers, Aug. 29, 2005, will remain embedded in the minds of most Louisianans for the rest of their lives. While the cataclysmic event named Hurricane Katrina caused death and destruction to New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, the effects of the disaster are still being felt there 18 months later. Antique dealers and auctioneers commonly speak of the hurricane as a watershed event: pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.

The French Quarter, the oldest section of New Orleans, was largely spared the flooding that paralyzed the city in the days following the hurricane. Running through the heart of the French Quarter is Royal Street, which the Travel Channel has described as the “World’s Best Street for Antiquing.” Numerous elegant antique stores line Royal and Chartres streets, where serious collectors shop for museum-quality antiques.
The oldest is M.S. Rau Antiques, 630 Royal St., which Austrian immigrant Max Rau opened in 1912. “We’re the largest antique gallery in sales in North America,” said Bill Rau, a grandson of the founder who became president of the family company in 1991. “We’re the last of a dying breed where you can buy paintings, porcelain, silver, furniture, cut glass,” said Rau. “I can’t think of anyone who has been around (the antique business) for three generations like we have.”

A slick catalog mailed to customers six times a year and a state of the art Web site account for a large portion of M.S. Rau’s sales. “We spend a quarter of a million dollars on our Web site to get it right,” said Rau.
Mail-order and Internet business has offset a decrease in sales at the store since Katrina. “It’s a little different. We’re doing well but there’s certainly less foot traffic,” said Rau.

The bricks-and-mortar version of M.S. Rau consists of 25,000 square feet of display space. “Our building was the home of the first mayor of New Orleans,” said Rau. “We have three buildings put together over the years, so we’re much larger than the average store.”

Among the many shops in the historic neighborhood, Rau recommended Keil’s Antiques at 325 Royal, Arthur Harris Antiques at 233 Royal, and French Antique Shop at 223 Royal. He said other, perhaps less-exclusive, shops are located along a six-mile stretch of Magazine Street outside the French Quarter.

Neal Auction Co. is located at 4038 Magazine St. in the heart of New Orleans’ uptown neighborhood. Bettine Carroll, director of business development at Neal Auction Co., had held management positions with Sotheby’s and Phillips. She also independently brokered estates to the major New York auction houses. Before moving to New Orleans in 2005 she asked associates what was the best auction house there. “Hands down everyone I asked at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and dealers said Neal Auction Co. I approached them with an idea for a job,” said Carroll. She moved to New Orleans a month before Hurricane Katrina hit and has been at Neal Auction Co. for about a year.

Neal Auction Co. quickly recovered after the storm, holding their Louisiana Purchase Auction on Dec. 3-4, 2005, in Jackson, Miss. Highlighting the South’s best antiques and art, the annual auction totaled more than $3.5 million. Neal Auction Co. resumed conducting auctions at their New Orleans galleries with the Winter Estates Auction last March, which totaled $1.8 million. Neal Auction’s most recent sales, the Louisiana Purchase Auction, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, and the Holiday Estates Auction, Dec. 2-3, totaled $3.1 million and $3.2 million, respectively.

“The December sale was unusual for us because it concentrated on art and antiques from the Northeastern region. We sold items that were unusual for us and did extremely well with them, like early American furniture typically reserved for Sotheby’s or Northeast auction houses,” said Carroll. One highlight was an American Chippendale carved tiger maple chest that sold for $86,250. “It’s the highest price ever paid for an example of that type in tiger maple,” said Carroll.

The December auction also featured an oil painting of a horse race at New Orleans Fairgrounds, a rare collaborative work by American Impressionist artists Robert Wadsworth Grafton and Oscar Griffith, who wintered for a time in the Crescent City. The painting, 56 by 153 1/4 inches, sold to the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga., for a record price of $278,750.

Neal Auction Co. conducts auctions at the Magazine Street headquarters and at a second gallery several blocks away at 3923 Carondelet St. “We have a two-day sale, Saturday and Sunday, six times a year. Saturday is here on Magazine Street. Sunday is on the Carondolet Street premises,” said Carroll.

Kelly Eppler, managing director of New Orleans Auction Galleries Inc., 801 Magazine St., is preparing for their next big auction, March 24-25. “One of the most important things we have is a group of Newcomb College pottery that has been donated to further the cause of ‘Save Newcomb College,’ which is a group of alums who have gotten together to raise funds to help win back the distinction of the college for women, because Tulane has absorbed it into the big university,” he said. (Ed.- See extensive news coverage in the Feb. 7 issue of Antique Trader.)

New Orleans Auction Galleries has rebounded strongly since Katrina hit. “Interestingly enough,” said Eppler, “we had our best year ever last year and our best total sales for one auction, which exceeded $7 million last May. We just had a sale that was our best January sale of all time, and this past weekend our St. Charles Auction Gallery (1330 St. Charles Ave.) topped their record sale of all time.”

Eppler, a native Texan who has worked for the auction house for 25 years, is astonished at how momentum has built. “I think it started off with a lot of sentimentality toward the city following Katrina. We had a lot of national recognition in publications … I think that got a lot of people interested, but from there on it’s just been amazing,” he said.

This is not to suggest New Orleans is anywhere near normal. “If you drive around you will see there are still many devastated neighborhoods of every class. I live in a modern section of Old Metairie, but the mansions of Old Metairie are still not back … Then you have the poverty-stricken areas that are still devastated. The homes are imploding,” said Eppler.

Located on higher ground in the warehouse district, New Orleans Auctions Galleries was fortunate to have suffered minimal damage from Hurricane Katrina. “We had no damage and no looting. We had one windowpane broken. It was pretty amazing,” said Eppler.

Sidney Lambert has been in the auction business in the Crescent City for 37 years, having worked for Neal Auction Co. and New Orleans Auction Galleries. In April 2004, Lambert and local attorney David Duggins launched Crescent City Antique Gallery. The new auction house was just hitting its stride when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Part of the roof blew off, breaking a water line that leaked water from the top floor into the ground floor auction gallery for two weeks while the city remained evacuated. “Remarkably, I had minimal damage; $10,000 to merchandise,” said Lambert.

Getting the auction house back on track has been a challenge. “Post-Katrina New Orleans is a difficult place to do business. The main thing is I’ve taken at least 1,000 names off my mailing list. People are gone. They’ve moved to Houston, North Carolina or wherever. That does hurt,” said Lambert.

He realizes, however, he is fortunate to still have a business. His auctioneer is Jerry Rosato, whose long-running Hampshire House Auctions in nearby Kenner was destroyed by Katrina and then looted. Lambert said his Jan. 27 auction was the best he has had since Katrina and hopes to keep building momentum as the year progresses.

Crescent City Antique Gallery, 1015 Julia St., is in a building that Lambert believes was once a saloon. “We’re on the corner of North Rampart and Julia. North Rampart was a black jazz area. Louis Armstrong played on this street,” said Lambert, adding his auctions are upbeat. “The auctions are more fun here than at any of the other companies because we aren’t as stiff. Having worked at Neal and New Orleans Auctions, there’s a lot of tension there during the auctions. We’re fun and definitely laid-back,” said Lambert.

While Crescent City Antiques has a Web site, their auctions are not carried live on the Internet. “I haven’t had success with eBay. I’ve done it twice and lost money both times. They’re not on my priority list. We do absentee bids and phones. It’s a regular auction gallery,” said Lambert.
Hurricane Katrina uprooted and displaced thousands of families and businesses. Denise Mitchell had owned an antique shop in Ocean Springs, Miss., for five years when Katrina struck. “Our shop was not destroyed, but our business was severely curtailed because the bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs was gone and they said it would take a couple of years before it could be rebuilt,” said Miller. Many of her customers were tourists who drove to Biloxi’s gaming casinos, which also were destroyed by the hurricane, and used the bridge across Biloxi Bay as the only direct route to Ocean Springs.

When Mitchell’s husband found a job in Breaux Bridge, La., she closed the shop and moved back to her home state. Her mother, Millie Delaune, and brother, David Delaune, moved there too and together opened Main Street Antiques at 117 N. Main in Breaux Bridge in October. Accessibility should not be a problem there. Breaux Bridge, a city of nearly 7,300 people, is located between Lafayette and Baton Rouge and has immediate access to Interstate 10. The store is centrally located in the business district and shares a 50-year-old commercial building with a pharmacy.

Mitchell has enlisted 12 dealers to help stock the shop with a general line of antiques. “Our prices are very affordable,” she said. Customers will also find the handiwork of her 82-year-old father, Dudley Delaune, who carves waterfowl decoys. He calls himself the “Cajun Country Carver.” Main Street Antiques is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
Denham Springs, nine miles east of Baton Rouge, has nearly 20 antique shops in its downtown business district dubbed Antique Village. Seven years ago Charles Crowder, a local antique dealer, bought a former hotel that had been transformed into an antique mall. He retained the best seven dealers. “We’re primarily furniture dealers so we needed a lot of space ourselves,” said Crowder, who operates the store with his wife, Florence. Crowder Antiques, 114 N. Range Ave., has an extensive selection of furniture, including English and French pieces, which Crowder said are priced affordably.

Crowder blames inclement weather for a slow start to 2007. However, “2006 was a very good year for just about everybody here.”
A century-old downtown business district has been an asset in Ponchatoula’s laying claim to the title of America’s Antique City. Its proximity to the junction of I-12 and I-55 makes Ponchatoula easily accessible to motorists, including those traveling to New Orleans.
C.J. and Mary Scandurro opened C.J.’s Antiques & Collectibles, 160 S.E. Railroad Ave., in 1993 after city fathers made a concerted effort to revitalize the business district by attracting antique dealers to set up shop. C.J.’s is located in a large building originally used by a strawberry grower, and later it became a winery. “It’s a great old building with high ceilings with cypress beams,” said Mary Scandurro. Three years ago they expanded into an adjacent building and now have 30 dealers. “At our shop you can buy something for 79 cents up to $2,800,” said Scandurro, a native of Kentucky.

“We were antiquers before we got into this business. Before we opened we went up to the Midwest and looked at shops to see what we liked about them,” said Scandurro.

About 60 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, Ponchatoula sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina. Although both their buildings sustained roof damage, quick action by the storeowners minimized losses inside. “My husband got over there during the middle of the hurricane and laid tarps on everything,” said Scandurro. Loss of electrical service for two weeks and widespread destruction resulted in a downturn that lasted into 2006. “It picked up when people started rebuilding and refurnishing their homes. I feel like 2006 was a good year, especially because we had no hurricanes,” said Scandurro.

Dot Love has owned Vintage Treasures since 1999 and was a dealer at the antique store for two years before that. “I had been buying and refinishing furniture for dealers almost 20 years for several dealers before I bought the shop,” said Love. Vintage Treasures, 139 W. Pine St. in Ponchatoula, occupies a 1920s commercial building that has about 4,000 square feet of space on two levels.

Neil Roussel moved his shop from neighboring St. John the Baptist Parish to Ponchatoula shortly after the town launched its marketing campaign in the late 1980s. “We’ve been here since day one of that setup,” said Roussel, whose boyhood curiosity in his father’s family plantation along the Mississippi River led to an interest in antiques. “I started refinishing furniture and working with antiques when I was in high school and it became my job,” said Roussel.

Roussel’s Specialty Shop, 177 W. Pine St., is open Tuesday through Sunday and is one of the largest antique stores in Ponchatoula. “We specialize in furniture before the turn of the century — Victorian, Eastlake and Empire, including Louisiana pieces,” he said.

People refurnishing homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina accounted for much of Roussel’s business last year. “Business was good but it wasn’t to say it was a boom; it was different,” he said, noting a significant drop in tourism on the way to New Orleans. “It looks like — if New Orleans comes back — business is increasing,” he said.


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