An Irishman visiting Morocco who bought a figurine in an antiques shop for €60 has discovered that his holiday souvenir is a 25,000-year-old piece of rhino horn worth tens of thousands of euro.
The self-employed carpenter, who wishes to remain anonymous, visited Chefchaouen, a town in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco, inland from Tangier, in 2006, and bought the 6-inch high, carved figurine in an antiques shop that sold “mostly Islamic and Roman items”. The man, who collects antiques “as a hobby”, said he liked the figurine because it looked Chinese. He told The Irish Times that the item was priced at 800 [Moroccan] dirhams but he “haggled and got it for 600 dirhams – about €60”.
He took the piece back to Ireland and began to research it. He believed the figurine was wood painted with lacquer and represented the Chinese Emperor Yongle. He had a hunch that it might date from the 15th-century and said that his constant speculation had his “wife driven mad”.
She persuaded him to get the piece professionally assessed to “settle it”. The couple contacted a specialist company in England and travelled to Oxford where they paid a laboratory £550 (€619) for a radiocarbon dating test which enables scientists to assess the age and composition of materials.
The results showed that the piece was, in fact, not carved from wood, but was instead the horn of a “wooly rhino”– an extinct species of mammal that flourished during the Ice Age – and was 25,000-years-old.
The existence of the "woolly rhino" (Coelodonta antiquitatis) is known from cave paintings and the occasional discovery of mummified remains found in Siberia and Tibet.
The most plausible theory for the carving is that fossil came to light in 15th-century China and a craftsman used the horn to make the carving. In imperial China, jade and rhino horn were commonly carved to create decorative objects of great beauty and high value.
The man took the figurine to Mealy's Auctioneers – in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny – who estimated its value at up to €30,000. He has decided to sell it at auction and it will go under the hammer on March 6th.
Trade in rhino horn is prohibited by the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to which Ireland is a signatory.
However, antique items of carved rhino horn made before the regulations were enacted can be traded subject to strict supervision. Mealy’s said that the figurine would, in any case, not fall within the remit of the regulations as it derived from an extinct species as opposed to the various extant species of rhinoceros.
Rhino horns have become extremely valuable in recent years as a lucrative black market has emerged in Asia, and especially Vietnam, for the powder made from the ground horn which is mistakenly believed to have medicinal or aphrodisiac powers.
This demand is believed to have prompted a series of high-profile thefts of rhino horns from natural history museums in Ireland and worldwide during the past decade.
Two years ago, a group of men from an Irish criminal gang – dubbed the "Rathkeale Rovers" because of their links to the Co Limerick town – were jailed in England after being convicted of a conspiracy to steal rhino horn and other Chinese artefacts worth over £50 million (€56m) from museums in Britain.