“I started working in auction houses from love and continued by chance, luck and passion.” Emilie Volka rolls her r’s the way they do at Mestre, but she’s not Venetian. She’s from the heart of Milan, born at Mangiagalli Hospital to a French mother. Since October, she has been director of Artcurial Italia, an auction house founded in Paris that deals in art, furniture and design. She welcomes me to the Milan premises in Corso Venezia, which are spacious, empty and relaxing. Emilie pronounces her name the English way, though it should be Émilie, à la française. But like this it's more international. Despite her position and background, Emily is no snob. She has shot to the top of her profession: by the age of 30 she was running the Cambi auction house. It all started with a love of antique furniture.
How did that happen?
My history at work began from love and by chance. Here in Italy, compared with France, auction houses 10-15 years ago were not much in vogue. But I grew up with them.
Why is that?
In France, when you inherit you have to pay a lot of taxes. Death duties are high. Most people auction everything off and pay their taxes with the proceeds. The commissaire-priseur (official auctioneer) deals with it all. Things are different in Italy. The client turns to an antique dealer or gallery owner, a more personal figure. Auctions are more transparent, the price is published and printed, we have experts competent in the sector.
I started working in auction houses from love and continued by chance, luck and passion.
Do you provide a certificate of authenticity?
We never provide certification. We’re not a foundation or archive. But we do provide a full history, including the ownership, and this is as valid as a certificate.
What commissions does an auction house take?
We ask 25%, the English 30%. VAT is separate and calculated on commission. Usually you ask the seller for 15% and the buyer for 25%, without any odd charges. Buyer commissions vary by selling price: the more it rises, the less you pay. Out of every 1,000 euros we get 400.
What interests you on the Italian market?
Everything. We have 25 branches and deal in everything from archaeology to wine, whatever interests the domestic market. Design, Italian products, Gio Ponti , Gino Sarfatti and Gabriella Crespi. Modern art: Fontana, Burri. Ancient art: Magnasco, Guercino, Quattrocento gold-ground paintings. When it comes to antique furnishings, we’re interested in Venetian or Genoese dressers and consoles. They have an international appeal. Or Buccellati jewels. Everything of good quality made in Italy, which the French know how to make the most of.
Are the French good at enhancing their value?
The mix between Italy and France is dynamite. In Italy you find wonderful things, and the French really bump up their value. We’re much more productive, they’re good at working with the finished product. We’re the beginning and they’re the end. Each needs the other. They’re equally important, 50-50.
The mix between Italy and France is dynamite. In Italy you find wonderful things, and the French really bump up their value.
What did you study?
I trained as a fine art appraiser and specialised in antique furniture. I know everything about furniture. Put a piece of antique furniture in front of me and it’s my bread and butter. Design too, if you like – I’m adapting to the market.
Are you passionate about antique furniture?
Yes, because now it costs nothing.
Really? Even less than contemporary design?
A fine eighteenth-century cabinet costs less than a quality cabinet by a chain turning out furniture in series. When some friends set up house I recommended buying at the auction I was holding at Cambi, because you could get Renaissance pieces, or nineteenth-century items at 80-100 euros.
You should furnish a home one piece at a time. I have clients who can tell me which market or antique dealer they bought each piece from. It's always fascinating to hear their stories.
Yes, yes. Take porcelain tableware – maybe not with interesting subjects like hunting scenes, but you can pick up a full 24-piece service for 400 or 500 euros in nineteenth century porcelain.
Once I bought a bronze bust of an old man because it looked like an uncle of mine I was fond of. I paid 100 euros for it. The bronze alone would have cost more. You make some wonderful discoveries, fascinating. When you’re furnishing a home you see your living space grow. From time to time, you add a new piece. The trend is towards furnishing everything in one go, but then it always stays the same. You should furnish a home one piece at a time. I have clients who can tell me which market or antique dealer they bought each piece from. It's always fascinating to hear their stories.