The rhinoceros, native to Africa and Asia, is one of the world’s most endangered species. Trade in rhino horn is prohibited by the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to which Ireland is a signatory. However, trade in antique rhino horn, items dating from before 1947, is still legal, albeit with significant restrictions and they occasionally turn up at auction.
During the colonial era, big-game hunting was popular and rhino horns were regarded as sporting trophies. Rhino heads, with the horns intact, were shipped back to Europe where they were stuffed and mounted by taxidermists to adorn the walls of grand country houses in Ireland and Britain.
In a separate tradition, craftsmen in Asia, and particularly China, carved rhino horn to create highly-prized ornaments including elaborate drinking vessels known as libation cups. These can fetch very high prices. At a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in 2010, a rare 17th-century libation cup sold for €2.5 million. Here, at a Mealy’s auction in 2011, a 19th-century Chinese carved, full-tip rhinoceros horn lotus libation cup sold for €75,000.
Yet a third and rather obscure use for rhino horn is found in the Middle East, and Yemen especially, where it is use to create elaborate handles for ceremonial daggers and canes.
In recent years, the trade in antique rhino horn has been undermined by demand, not from collectors, but from criminal gangs supplying a medicinal black market in Asia.
Rhino horn is made of keratin and in traditional Chinese medicine, the powder made of ground rhino horn is widely used and credited with significant curative powers. In Vietnam, for example, powdered rhino horn mixed with alcohol, is reputedly perceived as a cure for cancer. As a result, there is strong demand for rhino horn in Asia.
A lucrative black market is supplied from poaching rhinos in the wild and the international effort to counteract this illegal trade was discussed at a conference in London this week which attracted the support of Prince William.
It is likely that some antique rhino horns, sold legally at auction, also end up
– to the dismay of genuine collectors of both taxidermy and Chinese art – being ground to make the medicinal powder. The high price of illegal rhino horn powder, which can fetch up to €48,000 per kilogram on the black market, has also led to a spate of thefts of antique rhino horn from museums, country houses and auction houses in Ireland, Britain, continental Europe and the United States during the past few years.
Target for thieves
Last year, rhino heads and horns, valued at €500,000, were stolen from a warehouse leased by the National Museum of Ireland in north Co Dublin. Ironically, the items had been removed from public display at the museum's natural history wing in Merrion Street because it was feared they would be stolen. And in January Gardaí were called to the Co Cork home of the dancer Michael Flatley after antique rhino horn was stolen from his Castlehyde mansion. It is believed that, as nothing else was taken in the break-in, it was a targeted raid for just the rhino horn.
The ongoing controversy has prompted Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, in Durrow, Co Laois to announce that it would “no longer sell rhinoceros horn or rhinoceros horn derivatives because it’s the right thing for us to do and for our company to help save the rhino”.
The family-run firm has many clients in Asia, holds regular sales of Asian art and has sold rhino-horn items in the past. Auctioneer Philip Sheppard said that “already, within the past few days, Sheppard’s has declined rhino horn consignments valued at up to €250,000”.
At Mealy's Fine Art, auctioneer George Gerard Mealy said that antique rhino horn which has been "worked", such as taxidermy trophies of mounted heads, mounted horn specimens, and carved libation cups – could be sold under CITES guidelines but it was "quite rare for vendors to attempt to consign".
He said “people in possession of antique rhino horn are typically the descendants of big-game hunters whose specimens were acquired legally and have been resting in large houses since the 18th and 19th centuries”. Because the black-market value of rhino horn is very high “the question of insurance value becomes very difficult and the threat of larceny increases”.
In a statement to The Irish Times, Mealy's said it "abhors the sale of antique works of art made from rhino horn that are purchased for nefarious purposes, but acknowledges that there is a legitimate market for these decorative works when the buyers are connoisseurs and collectors. If an outright ban on the sale of all rhino horn is deemed the most appropriate way to curtail the poaching of rhinos, a detailed plan must be devised by the authorities to assist those in possession of these works of art".