Franz Sailer is carefully stroking a horse blanket with caravan embroideries. Signatory and dating are indications of authenticity for him: the number 1299, an Islamic date, is stitched there in red. The nomads from the Orient calculated age in lunar years instead of solar years. According to the Gregorian calendar, the textile piece was made in 1882. Sailer knows the calculation method: “1299 is divided by 33, after that this quotient is deducted from 1299 and finally 622 has to be added. This year means the beginning of Islamic calculation of times, when Mohammed escaped from Mecca to Medina.” There’s no doubt that this Austrian with his noble gallery in Santanyí is a specialist in the exquisite, but not widely familiar, type of rugs known as kilims.
Sailer´s background provides another surprise: he’s a professional opera singer. In the 60s and 70s he was actually touring as a tenor. In the gallery´s back room a piano is evidence that music is an essential part of life here. The charming Austrian performed at Salzburg Festival and took part in classical music recordings. But Sailer didn´t like the stage too much and so the gifted joke-teller remained true to the rugs and carpets.
Sailer speaks deliberately with a warm Austrian accent. It seems difficult to disturb his calmness. Obviously this man has the right manners to mingle with the jet set – evidenced by the fact that he was allowed to beautify the manor house of the billionaire Aga Khan in Geneva. His own gallery building in Santanyí looks like a residence for a baroque owner. It´s a splendidly renovated mansion, having been the birthplace of a future bishop in 1722. Almost 300 years later, descendants of Bishop Verger´s family are still the owners of the property. “They would never sell the house,” Sailer is sure. At least he was allowed to rebuild and arrange as he thought best.
In the impressive rooms Sailer not only deals with carpets and rugs but also with adornments, glass objects, pre-Colombian aged textiles and modernistic paintings. But his love is dedicated to the kilims: “These flat canvases are nomad treasures from desert areas in Persia and Turkey. They were all handmade with great effort, because the carpets were included in the dowry. Nowadays kilims are dividends of our soul.” Originally there was no thought of dealing in this kind of textile. Now there´s even a commercial glut on the market that Sailer´s battling against: “Shady dealers put trash on the market, grubbily woven kilims with chemical colours.” For him only real rarities possess value.
For decades his know-how has been in his fingertips and in his eyes. “In the meantime, I´ve sold some 500 textile textbooks to young carpet traders because they’re of no use to me any more“, the man from Graz remarks. Quality and originality he recognizes by examination of a kilim´s fabrics and colours. After a few seconds he knows if the best wool, cotton and silk have been crafted. The colours must derive from plants or animals. In the rare event of doubt, he sends the carpet to a lab to check the age with radiocarbon dating. Sailer is not self-taught. For 24 years the accredited art expert worked as registered forensic surveyor in Austria. Since 1978 he’s acted as expert advisor for Vienna-based art museum MAK.
Fifty years ago he started his career with an apprenticeship in a carpet store. After finishing that he decided to switch to music. Six years long he studied at the celebrated Mozarteum academy in Salzburg. In the end the carpets’ appeal was stronger. Thirty-four years ago he founded his first gallery in Salzburg. Later on he opened a branch in Vienna. Since 2004 his only gallery has been situated in Santanyí.
“We moved to the Balearic Islands, because I didn´t want to shovel snow any more“, Sailer explains with a smile.
The concentration on trading in kilims was another reason for the change of location. Sailer: “We were specialised in the trade with antique carpets and textiles from the period between 15th and 20th centuries. The worldwide asset of these rarities dramatically went down over the years, because almost everything was bought by museums and private collectors. If a worthy piece from the 16th century appears, 20 dealers jump at it simultaneously.“ Sailer benefits from his excellent stock and the sources of supply which he has been building up during the last 40 years: “Sometimes one is lucky and in a lonesome Persian village 3,000 metres up in the mountains a chest with a dowry and old kilims appears.”
There´s a wide variety in prices. Small decorative kilims cost between 700 and 800 euros. At the top there´re no limits. However, the average price of large kilims fluctuates between 20,000 and 50,000 euros.
The Santanyí gallery´s business idea continues the tradition of the famous Sailer stores in Austria: “Buy beautiful things, present them and distribute them to good customers.” Sailer wants to maintain his business and, with some 400 kilims in stock, rejects retirement: “I still buy more because it keeps on challenging me,” he confirms. His passion outweighs his age (70) and cautiousness: “Generally, I needn´t work any more. My wife and I both draw a good pension. But is having a walk with the dogs and dreaming of food all that life can still offer to me? That´s too boring for me.“ Furthermore a good trading revenue polishes up the pension.
Making money with art is a matter of course for the “kilim tenor”: “Rich people spend their money buying beautiful things or making an investment.” He firmly believes that carpet rarities guarantee more value for money than shares: “The amount of antique kilims cannot be augmented. Quite the contrary, damages make it decrease.” So automatically the value of the remaining examples increases. Sailer notices changes on purchase: “Many years ago 30 kilims out of 100 offered on the market were good enough to buy. Now if I buy three out of 100 it´s a lot.”
His business secret: “Correct behaviour towards every seller and buyer plus readiness to learn. Textiles require expert knowledge and sensitiveness. Lacking this the customers disappear immediately.” His charm and reputation disband difficult negotiations. The gallery-hideout in Santanyí is the centre to convince the affluent owners of Mallorca´s villas and fincas about kilims.
Lacking address lists, it´s not easy for him to gain access to his target market of connoisseurs. He´s planning to publish a new carpet catalogue. Sailer also acts as on-site interior consultant: “Recently I put three big suitable kilims into a dream home on the island´s west coast. Then there was life in the building.” Thick, strongly woven kilims serve as carpets on the floor. But, for example, a 150-year old Caucasian camel blanket – currently exhibited in the Santanyí gallery – fits better as a wall decoration. “When a house owner asks me to develop a carpet concept, no distance is too far for me. I´m a time-millionaire and service is everything,” Sailer emphasizes.
Alqueria Blanca is the Sailer couple´s private place of residence. Their three children live in Vienna. The elder daughter works as an architect, son David as a photographer and the youngest daughter follows her father´s vocation. She´s a textile conservator in Kunsthistorisches Musuem in Vienna. Will she take over the kilim business in the future? Franz Sailer: “I really hope so. She´s had a nice Spanish boyfriend for one year. This fact could be the bridge to connect both love and business.”