New Orleans history
New Orleans, Louisiana, known as the “Big Easy,” is famed for fun, food, festivities, and letting the good times roll. Its unique blend of French, Spanish, African, and European culture draws visitors from around the world.
New Orleans, though founded by the French, came under Spanish rule in 1763. Until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it welcomed Cajuns, French-speaking refugees from Acadia (today the Canadian Maritime Provinces), French-speaking Haitian immigrants, Europeans, and people of color, along with large numbers of African slaves. Afterwards, Americans, free people of color, and Creoles, people of Franco-Spanish descent, also arrived.
Shopping New Orleans for antiques
New Orleans’ unique boutiques, shops, and galleries, famed for their fine jewelry, fashion, furniture, funky art, and one-of-a-kind antiques, reflect this rich past. The historic French Quarter, bound by the Mississippi River and boasting architecture from the Spanish era, hosts many of the city’s finest antique stores.
M.S. Rau Antiques
M.S. Rau Antiques, a spacious landmark for over a century, for example, has earned the trust of discerning antique collectors from around the world. It is famed for its remarkable collections of fine art and exquisite jewelry, as diverse as diamond and emerald bracelets, untreated Burma rubies, and black opal rings. In addition to stunning Spanish antiques, which reflect the city’s early history, Rau offers exceptional 18th- and 19th-century items from around the world. These typically command a broad range of prices.
Whether seeking a 16th-century Spanish silver-gilt monstrance, a Pablo Picasso painting, a Louis XV royal presentation sword, a royal jeweled and inlaid walking stick, or that perfect pink diamond ring, visitors will likely find it here. In addition, Rau’s highly trained staff, sales employees, and research associates are second to none.
M.S. Rau’s greatest treasures, however, are hidden in a secret gallery behind a door painted to resemble a bookcase. It houses a treasure trove of rare, important, museum-quality art and artifacts — some whose prices extend into the 7-figure range.
Here, serious customers, escorted by requisite sales consultants or gallery employees, introduce prized one-of-a-kind treasures like paintings by Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Norman Rockwell, Napoleon’s bronze death mask, 18th-century furniture made by Thomas Chippendale, fine sculptural work, and furnishings that have graced palaces around the world.
The Brass Monkey
On the other hand, The Brass Monkey, located just a few blocks away, offers shoppers an intriguing assortment of distinctive, affordable gifts, tiny antiques, and quirky collectibles. Vintage walking sticks and medical instruments, for example, nestle beside slot machines, gently used jewelry, and sunglasses.
Bright, hand crafted Halcyon Days enamels, European reproductions, and English Staffordshire porcelain vie with vintage Venetian glass and delicate Limoges porcelain figurines and trinket boxes — their specialty.
This delightful shop carries tempting, locally made chocolate truffles as well.
J.H. Cohen & Sons
J.H. Cohen & Sons, located on Royal Street in the French Quarter, has been a history buff’s heaven since 1898. This museum-like, family-owned emporium specializes in priceless, vintage gold and silver coins, paper currency, stocks and bonds, maps, knives.
It also carries antique swords, French dueling pistols, war memorabilia (Revolutionary, 1812, and Civil War firearms), miniature lead soldiers, campaign buttons, and exquisite estate jewelry.
Louisiana Music Factory
Music, the soul of New Orleans, has celebrated hope and despair, love and life for generations. These days, Rhythm and Blues, Afro-Caribbean chants, Mardi Gras Indian, funk, Cajun swamp rock, and Zydeco strains rock local bars, clubs, and dance halls, inspiring revelers to high-step, bop, boogie, and shake booty.
Many of these modern genres, however, are based on earlier musical traditions. Enthusiasts of historic harmonies will find new and used ragtime, blues, swing, Dixieland, big band, gospel, and vintage jazz vinyls, videos, albums, and CDs at the Louisiana Music Factory, just outside the French Quarter. Moreover, this musical oasis not only celebrates local artists, but also hosts live performances.
Shop Magazine Street
Magazine Street, which parallels the Mississippi through some of the city’s most historic areas, boasts countless cafes and coffee shops, havens beckoning weary shoppers to indulge in local treats like tarts, croissants, and beignets, alongside cups of café au lait. Magazine Street also features six miles of enticing antique shops.
Aux Belles Choses, for instance, specializes in treasures old and new, personally chosen from shops, boutiques, and flea markets that dot the English and French countryside.
This shop, fragrant with an abundance of scented soaps, dried flowers, and lots of lavender, carries collectible plates, vintage linens, fabric napkins and tablecloths, silver-plated cutlery, and attractive pieces of enamelware. Aux Belles Choses also markets appealing, vintage biscuit barrels, cake stands, jelly molds, mixing bowls, fly catchers, and bottle carriers — perfect gifts for grandmas.
Balzac Antiques, located a few steps away, offers exceptionally elegant, curated 17th, 18th, and early 19th century European period pieces famed for their fine detail and quality design. Though many may initially seem simple, closer inspection often reveals high levels of sophistication.
All items, whether a polychrome 19th century Italian hall bench, a Louis XV style chinoiserie inkwell, or a walnut music stand with extending candle holder, are thoroughly examined and researched. Yet to discerning Balzac customers, beginners and seasoned alike, charm and uniqueness often trump provenance or style.
Mignon Faget, a New Orleans-based jewelry brand also on Magazine Street, features imaginative collections of exceptionally fine, handcrafted, wearable pieces of art, honoring the city’s history, diversity, and splendor. Scores of necklaces, pendants, earrings, rings, and bracelets, for example, feature the fleur-de-lis, the state emblem worn widely in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Elegant, white freshwater pearl necklaces, enhanced with handfuls of rose gold “rice” and “beans,” celebrate customary Creole cuisine. Delicate moonstone necklaces, accented with aquamarine, peridot, and — incongruously — plump sterling silver or 14 karat gold shrimp, crab, and okra-shaped pendants, celebrate the glory of New Orleans gumbo.
In addition, exclusive, Mignon Faget’s Voodoo Doll Pendants, shimmering with natural pinhead diamonds, feature wild, whimsical, Mardi Gras-inspired purple, green, and golden shocks of hair.
Julia Street: Gallery Row
Since picturesque New Orleans has long inspired sculptors, ceramicists, and painters, numerous art museums and galleries abound. Enthusiasts will find many contemporary exhibits along “Gallery Row,” on Julia Street in the Warehouse District.
The Jean Bragg Gallery of Southern Art, for instance, specializes in Louisiana pottery and paintings.
The Arthur Roger gallery exhibits up-to-the-minute works on paper, mixed-media sculpture, glass sculpture, and kinetic sculpture.
Le Mieux Galleries represent emerging artists, including Philip Gould, document and architectural photographer, Teresa Honeywell, mixed-media artist, and Shannon Landis Hansen, an assemblage artist currently incorporating ceramic figures, mosaic tiles, plates, cups and saucers into her creations.
Signmaker extraordinaire: Dr Bob
Some of the funkiest, most unconventional street artists, workshops, and art studios, however, are found off the beaten path, in the up-and-coming Bywater neighborhood. Bob Shaffer, aka Dr Bob, a half Crow Indian and half French-German self-taught artist, for example, creates some of the most unusual, respected, recognizable art in the city — and indeed throughout all Louisiana. His creations invariably feature a unique, primitive painting style enhanced with recycled found objects like old ironing boards, bits of Katrina detritus, stray splinters of wood, wheelbarrows, whatnots — and anything else that comes to hand.
Though Dr Bob paints whatever moves him, he returns time and again to personally pleasing motifs that reflect the colorful spirit of New Orleans. He often depicts quirky characters of the Quarter, city scenes, and juke joints, for instance, typically framing them with rows of cheery metal bottle caps.
Mirroring the local penchant for protective gris-gris, amulets, and Voodoo dolls, Dr Bob also offers an impressive selection of Mojo Hands. These historic, open-palm images, reputed to deflect evil, often incorporate the All-Seeing Eye, representing Divine Wisdom, along with images of good-luck hearts and horseshoes. On the other hand, this easy-going painter also depicts their nemesis, New Orleans’ spirits and demons.
Dr Bob also paints and sculpts fearsome creatures of the Louisiana Bayou, especially “smiling” alligators, which symbolize shrewdness, strength, and primal energy. (Fans of natural collectibles, however, may prefer acquiring authentic, preserved “gator” heads — another New Orleans specialty.)
Dr Bob may be best known, however, for his signature signs, which are found throughout New Orleans and indeed, around the world. All feature a phrase that characterizes not only his Big Easy way of life, but also his personal philosophy: Be Nice or Leave. And he sells them too.
Melody Amsel-Arieli is an Israeli-American freelance writer whose articles appear in collecting, genealogical, and historical magazines across the US, UK, and Canada. She is the author of Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov (Avotaynu 2002), and Jewish Lives: Britain 1750-1950 (Pen & Sword 2013). Visit her at www.amselbird.com.
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