Tile thefts decreased 84% in the country since 2007

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The decrease of 84% of tile thefts is one of the results of the SOS Azulejo Project work, launched in 2007 by the Judiciary Police Museum and that continues active in the promotion of the safeguard of the country’s tile heritage.

This is one of the quantifiable results of the project, according to the 2022 report, but the losses of the country’s historic and artistic tiles are “incalculable” and “much more vast in their legal form,” warned the SOS Azulejo coordinator, Leonor Sá, in an interview with Lusa news agency.

“When people think of tile delapidation they remember more about thefts, but I am convinced that if we could do a quantitative and comparative analysis, the most substantial losses were those made by legal means than by illegal means,” he assessed.

The tile has 500 years of national production and has gained tradition in Portugal in architecture, covering countless churches and noble palaces, other buildings in the country’s urban landscape, and in the decorative arts.

“The Portuguese have always lived surrounded by tiles and have not given them the importance they have. When foreigners come to Portugal they are absolutely dazzled and amazed. It is a heritage that does not exist in the same expression in any other country”, stressed the mentor of the project, lamenting the negative attitude of “trivialization of this heritage”.

The art of tilemaking took root in the Iberian Peninsula brought by the Arabs, who produced mosaics to decorate the walls of palaces and other dwellings. The technique was adopted by craftsmen, who designed patterns to local taste.

At the turn of the 20th century to the 21st century, and especially since the 1980s, this tile heritage was the target of demolitions and removals all over the country.

“These losses were very frequent, and nobody talked about it. There was no awareness. It was a non-topic, a matter that was not addressed or debated, neither in civil society, nor in academia, or among specialists,” the curator of the Judicial Police (PJ) Museum – Institute of Judicial Police and Criminal Sciences, in Lisbon, told Lusa.

It was in this context that SOS Azulejo appeared, a project that sought to go beyond the responsibility of the work of the PJ artwork brigades – with the mission to investigate thefts in this area – to develop the aspect of criminal prevention and promotion of the safeguard of this heritage.

Leonor Sá recalled that, since the project began 16 years ago, until today, and especially after the passage of legislation in Parliament in 2017, “there has been a drastic decrease in demolitions and tile removals, which have gone from frequent to exceptional cases, but it is not possible to quantify exactly, because there are no figures.

Before getting the approval of a set of proposals in the Portuguese Parliament, the project had to travel a long road that started in the capital, where it presented, in 2011, proposals to include the protection of this heritage in the existing Municipal Regulation of Urbanization and Building of Lisbon (REMUEL).

“We proposed two measures that interdicted the demolition of tiled facades and the removal of tiles. It was extremely important, because buildings until then could only be protected through classification, and they had to be special,” Leonor Sá recalled.

The entry into force of the new REMUEL in Lisbon in 2013 meant that tile heritage was now seen as a whole, and all its elements had to be protected.

“Before this regulation came into effect, demolitions were practically weekly in Lisbon. It was a massacre,” lamented the project coordinator, recalling that this tile heritage “is absolutely identitary of Portuguese culture and in it we can read the History of Portugal.

A next step was – through a partnership with the 300-member National Association of Portuguese Municipalities (ANMP) – to raise awareness among municipalities across the country to adopt the same regulation, but as “over three years little or nothing happened,” SOS Azulejo prepared proposals to present to parliament starting in 2015.

Two years later saw the achievement of the passage of law 79/2017, which bans the demolition of tiled facades and tile removal nationwide.

According to the SOS Azulejo coordinator, “in general, and gradually, the municipalities have been internalizing this sensibility, this new way of valuing heritage, and complying with the law, but there are still one or two exceptions.

“This legislation came to stop the bleeding of tile delapidation that had occurred until 2017. However, it is necessary to continue to draw the attention of municipalities to this heritage,” he reiterated, pointing out that it is not the project’s job to do fiscalization, outside the scope of its powers.

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