LISBON (Reuters Life!) - A Moorish legacy, priceless pieces of Portuguese history and the finest examples of an Iberian art form have been vanishing from public buildings, palaces and museums across Portugal.
Portuguese police want to crack down on the thieves who have been prising historic tiles off walls, floors and ceilings to cash them in for thousands of euros on the black market.
“There has been a significant rise of tile robberies from old palaces, hospitals and even from the city’s cultural centre,” said Leonor Sa, the head of Portugal’s police museum where hundreds of recovered tiles are now on display.
“We are probably the only museum in the world that doesn’t want to receive any more art works because that means tile robberies are on the rise,” she said, adding that the awareness campaign has already helped recover an important tile panel.
Some of the stolen ceramic tiles, also known as azulejos, break when they are pulled from walls, ceilings and floors across Portugal but those that make it to the black market in one piece can be sold for thousands of euros, experts say.
That is why Sa recently helped police set up an awareness campaign called “S.O.S Azulejo” to stop antique dealers from selling or trading stolen Portuguese tiles -- one of the country’s best known products along with Port wine.
“We can find all kinds of old tiles in antique stores in Portugal which people are buying without asking questions about their origin. The aim of the campaign is to make people aware that some of these tiles might be stolen,” Sa told Reuters.
Azulejos were introduced in Portugal during the Moorish occupation in the early middle ages and the name is said to have developed from Arabic.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, during the age of sea discoveries, azulejos became one of the most characteristic decorative art forms in Portugal -- often portraying ships, flowers, hunting and court scenes from that era.
Early Portuguese tiles were mostly painted in blue and yellow and depicted flowers or religious scenes. But the expanding Portuguese empire provided more themes and colors and by the end of the 17th century blue tiles became more popular.
Today, azulejos can be found inside most homes in Portugal and the country’s best-known artists, including Paula Rego, have used tiles to reveal their work. Lisbon also boasts a wide collection of decorative tiles dating back to the 15th century at its National Tile Museum.
The museum also boasts an endless patchwork of 1300 blue and white tiles that portrays the capital city just before it was hit by the 1755 Great Lisbon earthquake.
“People hardly pay attention when they walk past a wall full of tiles but if someone were to tell them that some tiles can be worth 10,000 euros a piece maybe some people would go back and steal them,” said Manuel Leitao, the head of Portugal’s Antique Dealer’s Association.
Reporting by Henrique Almeida, editing by Paul Casciato