Progress made on antique ivory trade regulation – but what about the UK’s rhino horn trade?


Yesterday, Tusk Trust revealed that the London element of its London-Johannesburg-Tokyo events on World Rhino Day 2016 will include an announcement by Defra Minister Andrea Leadsom that the UK government will change the law to ban sales of ivory unless dealers can prove it is more than 70 years old. Research for a documentary, to be presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, found that of nine purported antique items, several were from modern ivory, i.e., harvested from elephants since the legal cut-off date of 1947.

We very much welcome this clampdown on the laundering of illegal ivory through the UK’s antiques trade, but ask: what about the comparable problem with rhino horn?

Whilst the UK government has shown commitment to tackling the domestic rhino horn trade, tightening the rules under which rhino horn can be exported beyond Europe’s borders, traffickers can still exploit weak spots in the system and service the demand for rhino horn in Asia.

In theory, rhino horn can only be exported outside Europe if there are exceptional circumstances, such as purchase of a highly ornate Chinese libation cup by a legitimate museum (except for any destination in mainland China, or the move abroad of a family with a rhino horn antique heirloom piece…

The UK’s authorities have also cracked down on a criminal ring dubbed the “Rathkeale Rovers”, which was were responsible for a spate of some 90+ rhino horn thefts from museums and private antique collections across the EU.

However, the UK government has weakened the requirements for selling “antique” rhino horns in the country’s auction houses. Formerly, until 6 October 2014, auction houses were required to obtain a “Pre Sales Approval” CITES certificate confirming that the item was produced before 1947 before it could be sold as an auction lot. This was replaced by a requirement to obtain a ‘verification letter’ if buyers wished to take the item abroad – pushing the responsibility to the buyer.

Save the Rhino’s Director Cathy Dean contacted the Compliance Team at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, to say:

This seems a serious step backwards to us: it removes all sense of responsibility from the auction houses to vet, or consider the origins of, rhino horn items to be offered for sale, and simply places the onus on the buyer to apply for an export permit if s/he wishes to send the item abroad.

By requiring auction houses to acquire CITES certificates before offering items for sale, we believe that they were dissuaded from offering suspect items at auction. We fear that the floodgates will now open, and the chances of intercepting any smuggled items vastly diminished.

Furthermore, Karen Rennie, a reputable antique dealer, has repeatedly raised concerns over the lack of control and monitoring processes for antiques made of rhino horn, pointed SRI to examples of rhino horn products fetching higher than usual prices since the poaching crisis began, and found numerous examples of so-called antique carvings that are of vastly inferior quality, suspecting that modern horn has been crudely carved to pass off as antique and happily accepted by the auctioneers, keen to make their margin on a profitable sale.

Jonathan Cook – who worked as an Art & Antiques Consultant, is a member of The Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers (SOFAA) and was previously Head of Furniture at Phillips Auctioneers in London and then Head of Furniture at Bonham’s Auctioneers until 2003 – has also been keeping a close eye on rhino horn items at auction, flagging up suspicious items.

He drew the APHA’s attention to a rhinoceros horn inkwell, the first of its kind he’d ever seen, and asked them to consider the possibility that the parts from a much less valuable ivory-mounted inkwell or horn from another animal had been ‘up-cycled’ by placing them on a legally un-saleable rhino short horn, to make a much more lucrative auction lot. Ebonised plinths, such as that on which the rhino horn inkwell was mounted, are easy to find from other un-saleable late 19th/early 20th century taxidermy; so too are silver mounts with the correct hallmarks.

Jonathan Cook also contacted the APHA to suggest that salerooms record the identity of buyers of rhino horn items, so that law enforcement agencies could follow up at a later date to check whether the items were still in their possession. Such suspicions are not merely fanciful: the Czech CITES Management Authority mounted an operation to see whether trophy rhino horns – imported into the country with valid CITES certificates, were still in the possession of the owner. They were told that the horns had been carved into bowls; on testing, the bowls were found to be made of wood. No doubt the horns themselves had gone to East Asia.

Now, on World Rhino Day 2016 and in the run up to CITES CoP17, Save the Rhino International asks the UK Government to take the UK’s role in the illegal rhino horn trade seriously: make obtaining Pre Sales Approval mandatory once more; and ask salerooms for the identity of buyers of rhino horn items, so that the UK’s CITES Management Authority may spring spot-checks on the owners to see whether the object is still in their possession.

Key facts about rhino horn antiques:

  • The current law says that “”No export or re-export permits are delivered for worked items of rhino horn, except in cases where it is amply clear that the permit will be used for legitimate purposes, such as cases where: the item is part of a genuine exchange of cultural or artistic goods between reputable institutions (i.e. museums); the item has not been sold and is an heirloom moving as part of a family relocation or as part of a bequest; or the item is part of a bona fide research project.”
  • There is almost no way to tell the age of a rhino horn except by carbon dating
  • The only authoritative book on antique rhino horn libation cups, “The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China” by Jan Chapman, is out-of-print and now sells for £100-300. Few auction houses, particularly provincial ones, will invest in this book or have the expertise to assess libation cups

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