Thieves tar­get his­toric Por­tuguese tiles

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

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.”

Moor­ish rule

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,, 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.

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