A RESPECTED Asian art specialist has defended the sale of rhinoceros horn libation cups at auction.
Academic and consultant Anthony du Boulay says that the large
majority are genuine antiques and do not contravene international
laws on the sale of endangered species.
His letter in this week's printed edited of ATG responds to
long-running claims that most of these highly-prized vessels are
recently made from illegally-sourced horn.
While Mr du Boulay agrees there is a connection between the very
high prices paid for libation cups and the Chinese belief
that the horn has special properties, he says recent
correspondents are mistaken in thinking that most are made recently
from poached horn.
It is, partly, he says, a case of economics: "Even at the
enhanced price paid for raw rhino horn, the cost of these small
cups is greatly in excess of anything they could raise by being
ground up. This simply would not be economically viable, and the
modern carvers, though often skilled, do not normally have the
ability to deceive the specialist."
Their recent frequency on the market reflects the fashion for
these vessels in 17th and 18th century China and the numbers
subsequently acquired by European collectors from the end of the
18th century onwards.
"In my long experience in this world I can remember these
sitting at the back of cabinets in many old country houses but not
being highly considered," writes Mr du Boulay. "The present fashion
has brought them out [but] they are usually perfectly genuine.
Karen Rennie, the Folkestone-based specialist in 20th century
British art and design, has written to ATG on this issue on a
number of occasions. Her letter, published last week, claimed that
UK provincial auctions were being used as "the de-facto clearing
house" for the illegal trade in rhino horn.
"The frequency with which these cups appear suggests most are
recently made from poached horn. The antique status conferred by a
sale at auction effectively legitimises these objects [that are]
subsequently ground down to be used as homeopathic remedies."
Jonathan Cook, another regular correspondent on the subject,
sent a similar letter, arguing that "a steep rise in prices for
second hand rhino horn is bound to have a knock-on effect on the
survival of [and] endangered species".
Both he and Karen Rennie have taken the antiques industry to
task on this issue, and have argued for stronger regulation.
Under current guidelines, most antiques that include the "parts
and derivatives" of endangered species enjoy an exemption from
CITES controls known as the "worked item" derogation. This states
that an item shall be exempt from the 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. It is illegal to sell any rhino horn
'worked' after the 1947 deadline or 'unworked' rhino horn of any
Difficulties arise when an item is sold without provenance
because there is no scientifically accepted method of determining
the age of the raw material.
By Roland Arkell