Appraiser, art and antiques dealer, treasure hunter, professor of Louisiana history: That's David Goldberg, who learned abut fine furniture and works of art early in life from his father, New Orleans wholesaler and auctioneer Morton Goldberg.
“My father would bring in a container of art and antiques from Europe daily for his wholesale business and weekly auctions,” Goldberg said. “I started working in the store when I was 15, over the summers, and gradually developed an interest in the business.
"When I was at Columbia as an undergraduate, my father told me it wasn’t a free ride, and sent me to auctions in Manhattan to bid on items he wanted. I would send truckloads down to New Orleans.”
Morton Goldberg was one of the best-known antiques dealers in town from about 1949 to his retirement in 1995, but son David didn’t grow up surrounded by them at home because his mother, the former Ruby Lassen, didn’t like them.
“My mother hated antiques,” Goldberg said. “She’d say, ‘I don’t like that stuff — I like new,’ so we never had it at home when I was growing up.”
His mom’s aversion to antiques did not inhibit her son’s passion for art, antiques or a great find.
“I love what I do or I wouldn’t still be doing it after 40 years,” he said. “When you’re in the appraisal business, you’re lucky if you get one big hit a year.”
A few years ago, Goldberg didn’t just get a hit — he knocked it out of the park for a family in Carencro, Louisiana.
“I was called in to appraise the estate of a Wilkinson family member, and when I walked into the bedroom, I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Goldberg said. “It was a (Louis) Majorelle desk and chair."
The furniture was one of just 10 sets made by Majorelle, a high-end Art Nouveau furniture designer in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Goldberg knew the value of the set immediately, having seen the pieces in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay on one of his many trips to France.
"I started shaking. That had never happened to me before,” the appraiser confessed.
“I appraised the desk for about $250,000 and made the connection with Sotheby’s for the family,” Goldberg said. “When all was said and done, the desk and chair sold for a total of $1.2 million.”
Dividing the estate
Goldberg rarely meets his clients under cheerful circumstances, as most clients need his services for a divorce, a succession or insurance purposes.
“None of those are happy occasions,” he noted. “I’ll be called in to assign a value to property that needs to be split between a divorcing couple or to assess the value of items in the estate when someone dies so that the heirs can divide the proceeds. I’m also called upon after a fire or another sort of catastrophe to appraise items for insurance purposes.”
Goldberg estimates that about half of his income derives from his services as an appraiser. The other half comes from finding treasures and reselling them.
“It’s easy for me to put more than 100 miles a day on my car visiting estate sales, thrift stores and consignment shops on both sides of Lake Pontchartrain, looking for things to buy and sell,” he said. “I don’t keep much of what I find. I send some pieces to auction houses all over the country and locally to Crescent City or New Orleans Auction. I know all of the auctioneers, and I know who can get the highest dollar for which item. The rest goes on eBay or on consignment at some local shops.”
Goldberg said his go-to consignment shops, especially for “smalls," are Heirloom Furnishings and the Renaissance Shop in New Orleans and Patina’s in Covington.
“In the business, we refer to 'smalls' as pieces other than furniture or art,” he explained. “Things like lamps, candlesticks, china, bookends — items you can carry. Buyers are different on the north shore — they’re more Anglo, so that’s where I might place a piece of sponge ware pottery. In New Orleans, everyone wants Vieux Paris.”
Currently, Goldberg has about 140 items in his eBay store (mortongoldberg.com), ranging from porcelain lamps to faux rhino trophies to works of fine art. One of the paintings is a striking portrait of an august gentleman in full academic regalia.
“An 86-year-old man emailed me when he saw the painting in my eBay store and said he is certain he saw it in an exhibition of works by Ellsworth Woodward back in the 1970s,” Goldberg said, referring to the Newcomb College art professor who put the school’s art department on the map when he founded the world-renowned pottery program. “It’s going to take some effort to confirm that, because there are no experts I can find in Woodward’s paintings.”
How to win at eBay
Goldberg said the key to being successful selling on eBay is to keep the inventory fresh. If something doesn’t sell in a reasonable amount of time, he will either take it to one of the consignment shops or rotate it out by replacing it with something he has in storage.
“I currently have six storage units — two giant ones and four smaller ones — and they’re packed,” he said.
Some buyers have expressed surprise that Goldberg sells — and buys — fine art on eBay.
“If you know what you’re looking at, it can be great. I have a friend who bought a piece on eBay for $86 that he thinks might be an original (Edouard) Manet and is taking it to Paris for verification,” Goldberg said. “It’s a treasure hunt every day.”