The trade in endangered species is governed by the United
Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of
Wild Flora and Fauna. CITES controls "parts and derivatives" of
endangered species as well as live specimens.
This means that ivory, tortoiseshell, taxidermy items and
furniture fashioned from some tropical hardwoods are all
Most antiques, however, enjoy an exemption from the controls
known as the "worked item" derogation. This states that an item
shall be exempt from normal sales controls if it was acquired prior
to June 1947 and has been significantly altered from its natural
raw state for jewellery, adornment, art, utility or musical
instrument. Most taxidermy qualifies under the derogation.
The cut-off date of 1947 is increasingly relevant as post-War
design has become mainstream: some timbers used in mid-century
furniture are on the banned list. It is unlawful to sell 'unworked'
specimens of any date (e.g. a whole, uncarved elephant, narwhal or
Above: mounted rhino horns in their raw state, such as this
pair sold by Sworders of Stansted Mountfitchet in February 2011 for
£56,000 are no longer legal to sell.
CITES provides the example of an ivory snooker ball made in
1900. As it was significantly altered from its original state (a
raw tusk) for the purpose of utility many years before the cut-off
date, it could be sold within the EU without the need for a CITES
The snooker ball would still come within the derogation if it
had been re-carved, for example to make a walking stick handle,
before June 1947. However, if the re-carving had been done after
that date, it would be outside the derogation and need a CITES
certificate from the department of Animal Health's Wildlife
Licensing and Registration Service.
In May 2013, significant changes were introduced following new
guidance from the European Commission on the interpretation of the
"worked item" derogation. See ATG's news story
The "worked item" derogation does not apply to the import or
export of items outside the EU. Anything sent by a UK antiques
dealer to a buyer outside Europe will require an export permit. In
2013, CITES re-export permits for elephant ivory and tortoiseshell
were priced at £37.
The Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service are available on
0117 372 8774.
A handy guide to what is and isn't permitted
under the new rules can be downloaded here:
ATG CITES PDF
Since 2010 it has been illegal to sell or advertise for sale any
rhino horn work of art in the UK unless CITES have provided
specific written clearance. Before placing such an item in a shop,
saleroom or catalogue, dealers and auctioneers should download and
complete one of two checklists on DEFRA's Animal Health website and receive
the official response granting the authority to sell.
The whole 'prior approval' process when selling rhino horn
carvings can be completed by email and should take no longer than
five days. Permissions to sell are uniquely numbered, which will
enable the seller to quote the number in the sales description,
thus avoiding any further queries as to the legality of the
Restrictions surrounding the export of rhino horn from countries
within the European Union were further tightened on March 12, 2012
to include all items, whether or not they have been 'worked'. In
practice this means that, while it is still legal to sell rhino
horn works of art in the UK once prior approval has been received,
they will no longer be granted licences to be sent overseas to the
increasingly affluent nations where such things are most highly
Above: Qing dynasty rhinoceros horn libation cup, £210,000
at Mallams, Cheltenham, November 2011. Such items will no longer be
granted an export license if sold within the EU.
In its latest and strongest measures designed to stem the black
market trade in powdered rhino horn, the European Commission now
advises 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."
The UK's Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service (WLRS) say
that, regardless of merit, they will now refuse any application to
export rhino horn objects to mainland China.
The new measures reverse previous WLRS policy, which provided an
exemption for antique works of art made of rhino horn, where the
artistic value was far greater than the intrinsic value of the horn
when sold into the illegal medicine trade in China.