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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued new guidelines on September 16 with immediate effect in a bid to curb the auction market for rhino horn trophies, which the authorities believe is fuelling the illegal trade in Far Eastern homeopathic remedies.

The withdrawal of export licences for rhino does not constitute a blanket ban on the sale of rhino horn works of art. The Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service, who issue export licences for works of art that include the parts of endangered species, will continue to consider export licences on a case-by-case basis, and the trade in many antique works of art (particularly the 17th and 18th century libation cups that have spiralled in price alongside other Chinese works of art) may not be adversely affected.

It was this aspect of the market that the British Antique Dealers' Association, who canvassed members on this issue, was most keen to protect when it recently held informal discussions with DEFRA.

Nor do the new measures amount to a ban on the sale of old rhinoceros horn in this country. Under the proposals, it is still legal to sell pre-1947 big game trophies in the UK. However, the decision to stop the trade moving overseas will impact 'open market' prices significantly. Taiwanese, Korean and mainland Chinese are the primary buyers in this field and they have been willing to pay increasingly high sums for old horns that can be legitimately traded.

Export licences will only be granted in future if buyers and sellers meet at least one of the following criteria:

• The item is part of a genuine exchange of cultural goods between reputable institutions (i.e. museums).

• The item has not been sold and is an heirloom moving as part of a family relocation.

• The item is part of a bona fide research project.

• The individual item is of such artistic value that it exceeds its potential value as a raw material on the illegal medicine market.

It would be on this last point in particular that the big game trophies sold for increasingly spectacular sums at auction will be turned down. Given their belief that these are being used in Chinese medicine, the licensing authorities say they have in place a formula that relates the value of the item under consideration to the black market value of powdered rhino horn in the Far East. Most decisions will be based on this formula, which remains confidential.

John Hounslow, head of the Wildlife Licensing Team, a division of Animal Health, said: "There is evidence that comparatively poor examples of taxidermy containing rhino horn have been selling for £40,000-50,000, far exceeding their worth as art objects. "To protect wild rhino populations it is important that future applications for the export of rhinoceros horn, with a small number of notable exceptions, are refused."

Animal Health say they will be contacting all auction houses and major antique trade associations in the UK to highlight the implications of trading rhino horn, and give their reasons why most applications to export such items will now be refused.

One issue they will face is the status of those objects that have recently sold at auction to Chinese buyers who have yet to export their purchases. In July, Tennants, the North Yorkshire saleroom who have an excellent reputation for selling natural history specimens, sold eight rhino horn mounts for a collective hammer price of £455,000, including a single specimen mounted by Rowland Ward in 1930 at a record £106,000.

While the auction house have received payment for these lots, it is less certain they have left the UK. DEFRA say that even those items that received pre-sale approval will not be granted export licences. Animal Health told ATG they did consider an amnesty period to allow such issues to be addressed but chose instead to make the ban immediate.

Many auctioneers have long taken issue with the suggestion that the saleroom community have opened a back door to the illegal market for Chinese medicine.

Adam Schoon at Tennants disputes government minister Richard Benyon's statement that "rhinoceros horn 'products' sold through UK auction houses [are] providing a financial incentive for poachers and encouraging the use of rhinoceros horns in Asian medicine". On a practical level, he believes the new proposals will simply have the effect of pushing the market underground (and ending the paper trail that currently exists), while he questions the merits of a UK-only initiative.

DEFRA say they will now make the case with the appropriate European Union committee to help ensure that a co-ordinated EU approach to the problem is agreed.

In the immediate future Tennants will continue to offer rhino horn trophies for sale to UK-based buyers. "We will soon see what happens to prices," he said.

By Roland Arkell