What made you start collecting vintage hunting decoys and other related items?
From the age of five, I used to go out hunting with my father. He worked hard all week, so this was pretty much the only time I got to see him relaxed and happy. I’d also help him raise our live decoys — captive birds whose calls would attract their wild brethren. When I was little I used to dream about ducks flying in front of the moon. Then when I got older and started playing football full-time, I wasn’t able to go hunting with my dad any more because I was generally busy on Sundays, which was the only day he had free. But when I was around 20 I really started to miss this part of my upbringing.
Was there a particular spur at this point, something that got you interested in the whole paraphernalia of hunting?
Dad had some lovely old, hand-built wooden birdcages. One day I couldn’t find them and asked him where they were. ‘Oh, we put them on the fire,’ he said. ‘I didn’t need them — I’ve got new plastic ones now.’ This really bothered me. And at that point I decided I’d seek out similar old things connected with the hunting culture of the Veneto, and try to save and restore them.
What is their attraction? Is it their beauty? Their history? Their naive, handmade quality?
I hadn’t realised there was so much art involved in the construction of hunting decoys. And it bugged me that so much of the work of our ancestors was being lost. People often threw out or burned what they considered to be junk when they cleaned out their grandparents’ attics. Many of these hunting traps and decoys were made because people were hungry and had to rely on their wits to get by. I collect these things so that one day my kids can understand where we come from, and realise that once things weren’t as easy as they are now, and how our grandparents made sacrifices in order to allow us to prosper.
How do you reconcile your love of hunting culture with your Buddhist beliefs?
Buddhism is about respecting all forms of life. But for me it’s so we can respect each other as people. For me the life of an animal is not as important as the life of a person, even though, for example, when my dog died I cried for two days. Some people find it difficult to grasp, but these things made long ago by our ancestors show a great love for nature.
I collect these things so that one day my kids can understand where we come from, and that once things weren’t as easy as they are now
What’s in your collection?
I have birdcages, lark mirrors and hundreds of types of gunpowder tins, from a time when people made rifle cartridges at home, some beautifully decorated. I have floating duck decoys, and wooden trampolieri (wading-bird decoys) for beach hunting at low tide.
Are there any particularly rare or unusual items in the collection?
How about an antique wooden spit for roasting birds? It’s amazing that they would make such a thing out of wood given that it was designed to rotate over a fire. It’s all beautifully jointed, with a weight that hangs down to operate the gears. I’ve never seen another example. And then there’s an 18th-century fox trap, beautifully worked by people who had nothing and yet were able to create these exquisite objects that today, with all our machines, we’d be hard put to imitate.
Where do you keep your collection?
At home. I have the luxury of being able to dedicate two whole rooms of my house to it.
Are there any pieces in the collection that you’re particularly proud to own?
Well, the unique part — in that I’m pretty sure I’m the only serious collector — consists of more than 500 cages, hunting decoys and other items made by Giovanni Simoncin, nicknamed ‘Nane Cristo’, who used to make decoys for Hemingway when he went hunting in the Venetian lagoon, and who’s still alive at the age of 95. He’s become a friend; he and his wife came to dinner at my house last year. When he saw how many of his creations I had in my collection, there were tears in his eyes.
Where do you find vintage hunting items?
Almost always via word of mouth. I have a lot of friends who know about my passion, so the word gets out. I do occasionally browse antiques markets, too, or I’ll organise swaps with other collectors when I have duplicates.
What does your family think of your collection?
My wife was a bit sceptical at first about me bringing these dirty old things home, but when she saw me restoring them, soaking them in anti-woodworm solution, bringing them back to life, she came round. Now she sometimes goes into my collection rooms and chooses pieces to decorate the rest of the house with: a wooden birdcage, say, or a bird decoy. And my children love them — actually, kids in general are fascinated by the collection.
Interview by Lee Marshall. Photography by James Mollison. Author’s note: about 10 minutes after the end of the interview, Baggio rang me back to tell me that he had just had a call from Giovanni Simoncin’s sons to tell him that their father had passed away that morning.
Explore our archive of Collectors & their collections. For more features, interviews and videos, see our Christie’s Daily homepage