So many buildings here have tile-covered façades that tiles, or azulejos, as they are known in Portuguese, have become one of the unofficial symbols of the city. Jenny Barchfield

With a single azulejo fetching hundreds of euros at the city’s more reputable antique stores, these tiles, sitting there out in the open, are easy pickings.

Jorge Costa was looking forward to a lazy Sunday when one of the employees at his Lisbon café called him up, breathlessly breaking terrible news: Much of one of the tile murals that had graced the façade of the Leitaria da Anunciada for the better part of 70 years had been ripped off the wall, leaving a gaping hole of exposed plaster.

Nearly 60 hand-painted tiles depicting a pastoral scene of grazing cows had been stolen, apparently in the early morning hours, when there’s little traffic in this largely commercial neighborhood off of Lisbon’s tony Avenida Liberdade. The tiles had been commissioned by the first owner of the Leitaria—which opened in 1927 as a dairy, with cows and goats living inside the building—after new hygiene rules forced him to move the animals out of the city.

“He was so sad about getting rid of the animals that he invested five whole years-worth of savings in the tile murals,” said Costa, 45, the current owner of the business, which has been passed down through three generations, mutating from a dairy into a café as times, regulations, and fashion changed. “For all these decades, the murals were what set us apart; they were our symbol.”

Such robberies are commonplace in Lisbon, Portugal’s pastel-hued capital, which is also the tile capital of Europe, bar none. The tiles run the gamut in terms of age and style, with the oldest blue-and-white ones painted by hand, and semi-industrial ones, a riotous rainbow of sometimes-dizzying graphic patterns. So many buildings here have tile-covered façades that tiles, or azulejos, as they are known in Portuguese, have become one of the unofficial symbols of the city: The souvenir shops here are brimming with tile-themed chachkas; the National Tile Museum is among the city’s most-visited institutions; and tile collectors from around the world regard Lisbon as their Mecca.

“For centuries now, azulejos have defined what it means to be Portuguese,” said Dr. Vítor Serrão, an art history professor at the University of Lisbon. “From the Middle Ages through today, tilework has been the definitive Portuguese art form.”

But tiles are, of course, a very particular art form—one that, unlike paintings or etchings or sculptures, can’t be securely stored or protected. And with a single azulejo fetching hundreds of euros at the city’s more reputable antique stores, tiles, which are just sitting there out in the open, unprotected, are easy pickings for specialized thieves, as well as drug addicts and others desperate for quick cash. Even tourists have been known to pry tiles off façades to take home as a souvenir.

Removing tiles is a crime, punishable by up to eight years in prison, but the enormous difficulty of prosecuting these kinds of cases make such convictions rare. Under Portuguese law, the onus is on police investigators to prove that the tiles they sometimes manage to recover were ill-gotten, and point to the specific building they were stolen from. Prevention is, of course, no less complicated.

“In order to keep these kinds of crimes from happening, you’d have to place a police officer outside every building with tiles,” said Rita Vieira, who heads the said police task force in that investigate such crimes in Lisbon, the so-called Artwork Brigade. “Obviously that’s unviable.”

It was long thought that the Portuguese predilection for tiles was born out of the centuries-long North African occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, but newer scholarship suggests that the first tiles to grace Portuguese churches and other monuments were, in fact, imported from Sevilla, in neighboring Spain, at the end of 15th century, said Dr. Rosário Salema de Carvalho, of the University of Lisbon’s Tile Research Network. Portuguese artists, including some of the most celebrated painters of the day, would soon try their hands at tile-making as azulejo-covered interiors became all the rage. The fashion would later spread to Portugal’s colonies, particularly Brazil, and migrate from the interiors of buildings to their exteriors, too—tile façades having proven effective at protecting buildings from humidity and aging. 

Tile theft and destruction has long been a problem, but the recent booms in tourism and real estate—which over the past few years have transformed Lisbon from a forgotten backwater into one of Europe’s most coveted destinations for visitors and expats alike—are also helping fuel the destruction of Lisbon’s tile heritage. The demand for tiles as souvenirs has fanned a thriving black market at the city’s flea markets, where stolen tiles fetch but a fraction of the three- or even four-figure prices at antique dealers but still represent quick cash for sellers. (Antiquarians are required to report any tiles they purchase to local authorities and must account for the provenance of each piece, but it’s impossible to apply those rules to the informal sector).

And with property prices spiraling, tile façades can be seen as a burden by homeowners eager to cash in on the real estate boom. A 2017 law aimed at protecting tile façades forces homeowners—even the owners of buildings that don’t have any protective historic status—to get permission before they remove any tiles. This means that developers can no longer simply swoop in and demolish buildings with tile façades—and that tile thefts and vandalism can actually prove a boon to owners looking to downplay the value of their façades.

“We know there are still many cases of tiles conveniently ‘disappearing,’ right as a building is slated to be turned into a hotel, for example,” said Dr. Joana Sousa Monteiro, director of the Lisbon Museum, which has among the country’s premier tile collections. She added that developers are often eager to donate historic tiles to the museum in bid to free themselves of the responsibility of having to maintain them in situ. While the museum does accept some exceptional pieces, their top priority is to make sure tiles are kept in place. “Tiles go beyond just the physical object themselves because many of them were created for a specific site, and we feel strongly that they need to be kept there.” 

Inside buildings, the situation can be even more complicated. While exterior tile façades emerged as a trend only in the mid 19th century, when industrial techniques allowed for tiles to be made on the cheap, tile interiors became popular when Lisbon was rebuilding after the 1755 earthquake and tidal wave that flattened much of the city. Those earlier hand-painted tiles, usually featuring in murals, are much more valuable. And because there are so many abandoned buildings in Lisbon—where longstanding rent controls often made it financially unfeasible for landlords to keep their properties up—vacant homes are often sacked for their historic tiles.

“Those are the worst cases because the thieves just come with a pickaxe and go at the walls, and they usually destroy more than they manage to pry off,” said Domingos Lucas, also an officer with Lisbon’s Artwork Brigade. “It’s heartbreaking, because once that patrimony is gone, it’s gone. There’s no way of bringing it back.”

Recent years have seen a groundswell of initiatives aimed at helping preserve Portugal’s tile heritage, including Lisbon’s tile bank, where owners can go to replace tiles that have fallen off or been stolen; databases, including one, Mapping Our Tiles, that uses crowd-sourced photos to create an interactive online map of tile façades throughout Portugal; and SOS Azulejos, a police initiative aimed at scoring tip about stolen pieces.

But still, incidents like the overnight robbery at the Leitaria da Anunciada keep happening.

Owner Jorge Costa said he’d been warning the landlord for years that the murals’ deteriorating condition could invite theft, with a single missing tile making it easier, both practically and psychologically, for passers by to tear off others. But the landlord—ironically, Portugal’s state-run water utility—not only didn’t make any repairs but also prevented Costa from making the repairs himself.

“Nobody seems to care about tiles until they go missing,” Costa said. “The thing is, these historic tiles aren’t mine, and they aren’t yours—they’re everyone’s, and we all have a duty to protect them.”

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