Thieves target historic Portuguese tiles
LISBON — Gaping holes on the crumbling walls of an abandoned palace in the heart of Lisbon mark where decorative ceramic tiles have been yanked off, to the displeasure of passing tourists.
Thieves are swiping the elaborately painted tiles, which cover buildings across Portugal, to sell them on the black market. Just one of these tiles, called azulejos, can fetch thousands of euros.
And abandoned buildings like the 17 th century Pombal Palace, are especially vulnerable.
This was once the family home of the Marquis de Pombal, the statesman who rebuilt Lisbon after a massive earthquake devastated the city in 1755.
Owned by Lisbon’s cashstrapped city hall for the last five decades, it has fallen into ruin due to lack of maintenance.
And since a cultural association, Carpe Diem, moved out at the end of July, the building has been empty.
“SOS Azulejo”, a project set up by police in 2007 to stop antique dealers from selling stolen Portuguese tiles, includes it on its list of “high risk” buildings.
Tile thefts have plunged by 80 percent since the project was set up, said Leonor Sa, the head of Portugal’s police museum which displays recovered stolen tiles.
But a huge amount of thefts go unreported, she added.
“The Portuguese do not file complaints because for them they are the most banal thing in the world. They live surrounded by tiles since their birth until their death,” Sa said.
“Foreign tourists who discover these ceramics love them because they don’t have them at home.”
Sa, who has a doctorate in cultural studies, gave birth to her two daughters, Rita and Joana, at a Lisbon hospital decorated in azulejos, where she herself was born 59 years ago.
Azulejos first came to Portugal in the early middle ages when Portugal was under Moorish rule.
Although many assume the word is a derivation of azul — Portuguese for “blue”, the color of most tiles — the word is Arabic in origin and comes from az-zulayj, which roughly translates as “polished stone”.
Disgusted at the loss of this unique Portuguese treasure, Sa set up an internet site, www.sosazulejo.com, that displays photos of tiles stolen from churches, hospitals, train stations and other buildings.
It makes it easy to check if a tile on sale at a street market or antique dealer was stolen.
“It’s very dissuasive,” said Sa, who is full of energy and has an intense gaze.
Tile thefts reached peaks of around 10,000 per year in 2001, 2002 and 2006 but “now there are significantly fewer” thefts, she said.
Since 2013 it is illegal in Lisbon to demolish a facade decorated with tiles without the authorization of city officials. Parliament plans to extend the rule to the entire country shortly.
At Lisbon’s rambling Feira da Ladra flea market, or “Thieves’ Market”, old azulejos are on sale for between five euros and 100 euros ($118).
A giant 18th-century panel made up of brown, gold and green tiles depicting exotic animals and flowers was on sale for 500 euros.
Prices at antique dealers can go even higher, with some azulejos fetching up to 10,000 euros.
A couple passes by a facade covered with typical Portuguese tiles and others missing in Lisbon on July 9. Tiles are part of the Portuguese architectural heritage and through the years they've been taken or stolen from public spaces.