The announcement was made on Friday, as ATG went to press.
A call to Animal Health's Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service (WLRS) confirmed that auctioneers with the correct CITES permissions who were advertising mounted trophies could go ahead with their adverts and sales provided those adverts had already gone to press. Thereafter, the ban would be total.
The sudden ban came after the WLRS decided to act immediately on European Commission guidance changing the definition of what constitutes a work of art in relation to rhinoceros horn. It brings to an end the lucrative legitimate trade that saw some specimens sell at auction for over £100,000.
European regulations have long allowed the sale of rhino horn only when specimens are 'worked items' prepared and acquired in such condition prior to June 1947. Until recently, mounted rhino horns in their natural state were considered to be 'worked' meaning they could be legally traded.
The new EC guidance is that "a rhino horn mounted on a plaque, shield or other type of base has not been sufficiently altered from its natural state" to qualify under the 'antiques' derogation.
It also advises that "the conditions which require any alteration to have been carried out for "jewellery, adornment, art, utility, or musical instruments" will not have been met where the artistic nature of any such alteration (such as significant carving, engraving, insertion or attachment of artistic or utility objects, etc) is not obvious".
WLRS chief John Hounslow said: "The new EC guidance has been put into practice and we will no longer give approval for the sale of mounted, but otherwise unaltered, rhino horn under the antiques derogation. Neither will we allow sales of rhino horn to take place where the artistic nature of any alteration is not obvious."
Taxidermy rhinoceros heads will be included in the ban, but the trade in antique rhino horn works of art (such as Ming and Qing dynasty libation cups) is unaffected. The law has changed only in relation to rhino horn and will not affect antiques fashioned from other endangered species, such as elephant ivory or tortoiseshell.
The new guidance reverses a ruling made two years ago that deemed rhino horn trophies permissible as works of art. Vendors responded positively to a raft of conspicuously high prices paid by Far Eastern bidders, but circumstantial evidence suggested that the horns were being bought as a raw material by the Chinese medicine trade where the price of powdered rhino horn is (according to one recent report) now $50,000 a kilo.
It was the surge of rhino horn sales to Far Eastern buyers at both UK and continental auctions that has encouraged the European Commission to look again at the issue. Specimens such as that sold by Tennants of Leyburn last year for a record £155,000 now have no legal commercial value in the UK.
By Roland Arkell