THE European Commission is expected to act shortly to halt the sale of all Victorian and Edwardian mounted rhinoceros horn.

An official change in the interpretation of the current law could mean it will be illegal to sell these Big Game trophies, which can command up to £150,000 at auction, as early as next month.

The question of what constitutes a work of art in relation to rhinoceros horn will be high on the agenda when EU CITES management authorities hold their general meeting on March 22. The "worked item" derogation states that an object which includes the "parts and derivatives" of an endangered species is exempt from the 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".

Two years ago the European Commission ruled that rhino horn trophies, previously considered to be part of an endangered species in their raw state, were permissible as works of art. Vendors responded positively to a raft of conspicuously high prices paid by Far Eastern bidders but – with circumstantial evidence to suggest the horns were being bought as a raw material by the Chinese medicine trade – member states are expected to rubber stamp a U-turn in the interpretation.

As this will not constitute a change to the regulations themselves, rather a change in the advice on how to interpret them, the process can take place quickly if no objections are raised.

Last autumn the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued guidelines regarding the sale of antique rhinoceros horn in the UK. In addition to the decision in September to refuse nearly all current and future applications for the export of old rhinoceros horn sold in the UK, in October it became illegal to sell or advertise for sale any rhino horn work of art unless specific written clearance had first been given by the UK CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Management Authority.

The Minister for Biodiversity's decision to impose a partial ban in September was, said John Hounslow of the UK CITES Management Authority, "based on the fact that he no longer wished the UK to be tarred with the label of fuelling illegal markets albeit with legally acquired products". However, the export restrictions imposed in September have done little to curb the sale of Big Game trophies: indeed a specimen at Tennants of Leyburn achieved a record £155,000 in November.

Caroline Rigg, office manager at the Wildlife Licensing Unit, conceded that a loophole quickly exploited by Chinese buyers was the derogation that exports of mounted horn were permitted if the item was being moved alongside other personal effects or as part of a family relocation. Action by the European Commission with full cooperation of member states would be far more effective.

Caroline Rigg said 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. She added that any change would only be made in relation to rhino horn and will not affect antiques fashioned from other endangered species, such as elephant ivory or tortoiseshell, which if worked pre-1947 can be sold without specific approval from the CITES Management Authority.

The trade in antique rhino horn works of art (such as Ming and Qing dynasty libation cups) would also be unaffected.

One positive outcome emerging from the rhino horn issue has been the building of closer relationships between the UK antiques trade and CITES management authorities in Bristol. Animal Health worked closely with the British Art Market Federation, forming workable regulations in the autumn while in late January some 20 UK auctioneers took part in a series of workshops offering advice on how to make applications when selling, not just rhino horn but a wide variety of natural history specimens.

By Roland Arkell