The trade in endangered species is governed by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

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.

General Information

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 controlled.

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 walrus tusk).

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 certificate.

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.

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:


Rhino Horn

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 item.

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 prized.


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. 

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