Endangered Species

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

  • ATG Reporter
CITES rhino horns
Mounted rhino horns in their raw state, such as this pair sold at auction in 2011 for £56,000, are no longer legal to sell.

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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.

Many antiques, however, qualify under 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).

In the UK, the government announced in April 2018 that it would introduce an ivory ban with a small number of exemptions for certain items containing ivory. The rules in this area are therefore expected to change significantly once the new law is brought in. For more information, read ATG's guide to the incoming ivory ban in the UK.

A handy guide to what is and isn't permitted under the current rules can be downloaded here:

ATG CITES PDF

A detailed set of notes from a seminar on CITES hosted in 2017 by ATG in partnership with the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers (SoFAA) and the British Antiques Dealers’ Association (BADA) is also available:

ATG CITES Seminar notes

Snooker Ball

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.

Nations outside the EU have their own rules and some countries such as the US will no longer accept ivory imports of any kind. To other nations, CITES ‘re-export’ permits for animal species such as elephant ivory and tortoiseshell are priced at £37.

Re-export permits for plant species (such as Brazilian rosewood) are priced at £59. They are available from the UK’s CITES management team at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) Centre for International Trade. Contact 0117 372 3700.

Rhino Horn

There are strict rules surrounding the sale and export of rhino horn but it is still legal to sell ‘worked’ items acquired or prepared prior to 1947.

Providing they were ‘worked’ before 1947, taxidermy rhino heads can still be sold, as can items such as libation cups, beads, dagger handles and knobkerries.

What cannot be sold regardless of age are uncarved rhino horns including those mounted in silver as inkwells, clocks etc, or those mounted as big game trophies on or off shields.

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A Qing dynasty rhinoceros horn libation cup that sold for £210,000 at auction in 2011. Providing they were ‘worked’ before 1947, examples like this can still legitimately be sold.

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 not always be granted licences to be sent overseas to the increasingly affluent nations where such things are most highly prized.

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