THE new ‘emergency guidance’ banning the export of worked rhinoceros horn appeared to have a limited effect at the first sale since it was introduced without notice on March 12.
On March 21, Gorringes of Lewes offered a
fine 17th or 18th century example with archaistic decoration, a
'Shang Ming' seal mark and a deep caramel colour. Prior to the sale
the auctioneers announced they were unable to accept live internet
bids on this lot or any bids, written or on the telephone, from
mainland China. As has become common practice for premium Chinese
works of art, the auctioneer asked that potential bidders register
specifically for this lot and pay a deposit by bank transfer.
The assembled Chinese and Hong Kong agents
in the room watched while a UK-based private buyer outpaced a
London dealer at £74,000 (estimate £40,000-60,000). It was not the
six-figure sum the vessel might have commanded prior to the
legislation but nor did this 'test case' suggest the EU measures
(effective until at least the end of the year) will easily
extinguish the vibrant European auction market for rhinoceros horn
works of arts.
There are fears that the tighter measures
may drive the wider market underground.
Bidding was more equivocal at Tennants of
Leyburn on March 22 when another 17th century example with some
damage sold below hopes at £33,000 (estimate £35,000-45,000) and a
19th century rhino horn carving estimated at a very punchy
£65,000-75,000 failed to sell.
The March 12 announcement restricted the
export of rhino horn from countries within the European Union much
further, extending to 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, they will no longer be
granted licences to be sent overseas to the increasingly affluent
nations where such things are most highly prized.
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. The current record for a rhino horn works of art is
the so-called Hoqua gift rhino horn lotus bowl, a carved
masterpiece of the 15th century, sold for a premium-inclusive
HK24.18m at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2010.
While previous restrictions surrounding the
export of rhino horn have been discussed with trade bodies such as
the British Art Market Federation prior to implementation, this
measure was deliberately issued without consultation or warning to
avoid the need for any 'grace period'.
Environment minister Richard Benyon used
highly emotive language in an official statement when he said:
"These magnificent animals are on the brink of extinction,
suffering horrific deaths at the hands of greedy poachers. We've
been pushing for firmer restrictions to put an end to this cruel
trade in the UK, and so I am really pleased to see this important
step being taken."
He described the measures as a victory for
the ongoing pressure from the UK for tougher controls to tackle the
illegal trade in rhino horn but appeared to confuse the issue with
elephant ivory when he added: "Evidence suggests that criminal
groups are targeting rhino horns in all their forms, including
'artistic items', such as carved ivory, and re-selling it on the
In London the three major auction houses chose to respond
toATG's questions regarding the consignment and sale of rhino horn
material for the May Asian series, with official statements
unequivocally condemning all poaching and promises to scrupulously
observe all local and international laws regulating the sale of
Antiques Trade Gazette is the weekly bible of the fine art and antiques industry. Read articles like this every week in the Antiques Trade Gazette or ATG app. Click here to subscribe today.