Thieves target his­toric Por­tuguese dec­o­ra­tive tiles

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

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 17th 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 cash-strapped 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 palace 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 told AFP. "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.

Churches pil­laged

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 azulPor­tuguese for "blue", the colour 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.

'I don't steal'

Anne Typhagne, a 43-year-old French tour guide, lingers be­fore a dis­play of tiles at the flea mar­ket which over­looks the Ta­gus river. "Be­fore I bought a lot of them, then I stopped be­cause I am against the theft of Por­tu­gal's her­itage," she said. Po­lice in­spec­tions of tile ven­dors at the mar­ket are fre­quent. "When they come, I show all the pa­pers. I sell, I don't steal," said Maria San­tos, 28, whose small stand teems with ce­ramic tiles from the 18th and 19th cen­turies. While some tiles are re­cov­ered from build­ing de­mo­li­tions, San­tos said "of­ten, we don't re­ally know where they come from."

Os­car Pinto, the head of the na­tional po­lice divi­sion ded­i­cated to crimes in­volv­ing art, said the ma­jor­ity of tiles that are sold have a "le­git­i­mate" ori­gin. "Some­times it is the land­lords them­selves that get rid of them to ren­o­vate their homes," he said at his sparsely dec­o­rated of­fice. "But lets not kid our­selves. A drug addict who sells you 20 azule­jos in a plastic bag at one euro a piece, there is a strong chance that it was a theft." Pinto had gone to the flea mar­ket the day be­fore to try, in vain, to re­cover over one thou­sand 18th-cen­tury ce­ramic tiles pulled down overnight from an aban­doned build­ing in Lis­bon's river­side Baixa dis­trict.

The Por­tuguese cap­i­tal's tourism boom "could con­trib­ute to an up­surge in thefts," he said. Ce­ram­ics maker Cristina Pina, 55, thinks she has found a so­lu­tion to stop tourists from buy­ing old tiles-she has set up a small shop near the mar­ket that sells re­pro­duc­tions of azule­jos made in the 18th cen­tury. "I pre­fer it if tourists buy beau­ti­ful re­pro­duc­tions of azule­jos as sou­venirs of Lis­bon, which will al­low the orig­i­nals to re­main in the coun­try," she said. — AFP

Tiles, part of the Por­tuguese ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, are be­ing stolen from pub­lic spa­ces and build­ings and sold in mar­kets for low prices to tourists.

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