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Appearing in Miami District Court on January 14, Christopher Hayes, 55, admitted he and his company had unlawfully sold a total of six black rhino horns - two for $80,500 to a Texas resident involved in smuggling horns to China and two more to an undercover agent working with the Special Investigations Unit of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Another FWS agent consigned two horns for sale at the Boynton Beach auction house.

The court heard that, as part of a plea agreement, Hayes had also admitted to selling items made from rhino horn, elephant ivory and coral to an antiques dealer in Canada. The buyer was directed to a local third-party shipper who agreed to mail the items without the required permits.

Protected Wildlife

"In pleading guilty, this auction house is admitting that it played a key role in the supply chain of rhino horn and elephant ivory to wildlife smugglers and foreign markets," said assistant attorney general John Cruden in a statement.

Elite Estate Buyers Inc., of which Elite Decorative Arts is a subsidiary, has accepted a $1.5m fine and agreed "to no longer engage in the receipt, consignment or sale of endangered or protected wildlife, or items containing endangered or protected wildlife, including items containing rhino horn, elephant ivory and red coral".

Hayes is still to be sentenced and could face up to five years in prison.

The prosecution of Elite is part of Operation Crash, the ongoing FWS investigation into wildlife crime in general and the trade in rhino horn in particular. Hayes is the highest-profile figure caught up in the series of stings that have led to a string of successful prosecutions in recent years.