I was alerted to the phenomenal interest in rhino horns at the Bonhams sale of the Owston Collection in Sydney late last year. Two rather ropey looking adult black rhino heads (with particularly unlikely looking glass eyes) which were each estimated to sell for $20-$30,000 both fetched $90,000. Two more were sold by Theodore Bruce Auctioneers only last month in Sydney, estimated respectively at $30-$40,000 and $50-60,000 and realising $90,000 and $130,000. The difference in price apparently reflected the likely weight and density of their horns.
And the reason they fetched so much? No museum future for these stuffed heads unfortunately, but an unceremonious removal of the horn and grinding up into powder to be sold for medicinal purposes in Asian markets, where it apparently can fetch up to $50,000 a kilo.
In a comparatively short time, i.e. the last twelve months, those poor rhino heads in public collections have become a significant target for thieves. This year there has been the theft of the head of a black rhino from the zoological museum in Liège, Belgium in June and another one from the Natural History Museum in Brussels in July. In the UK the Haslemere Museum, lost theirs in May, and only last week thieves broke into the Ipswich Museum in Essex, and took off with Rosie, the stuffed rhino's horn. "They wrenched the horn off Rosie — it probably only took them five minutes to take it and leave. They knew exactly what they wanted, and nothing was else was taken," Max Stocker at Ipswich Council told Reuters.
We don’t of course know how many in private collections have also been stolen
The legislators have moved fast to clamp down on the legal trade. 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. The "worked item" derogation (as it is called in antiques language) stated 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". Until this year, mounted rhino horns in their natural state were considered to be 'worked' meaning they could be legally traded.
But in a sudden move in February this year, the EC brought in a ban on selling rhino horn trophies with immediate effect. In particular they identified 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 advised 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".
In summary this means that in the EC, including the UK, the sale of mounted, but otherwise unaltered, rhino horn is now illegal where the artistic nature of any alteration is not obvious.
Sadly those living specimens are not immune. In 2007, South Africa lost 13 rhinos to poachers, in 2008 the number rose to 83, and increased again in 2009 to 122. Last year more over 200 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa.
Apart from being generally aware of the new EC legislation and its likely implementation in Australia, the threat to museums of the theft of their rhino horns, heads and worked items is very real, and we should ensure whether in storage or on display they are all properly secured.
And the saddest thing of all? Dr Raj Amin recently advised the Zoological Society of London that tests by Hoffmann-LaRoche researchers had confirmed rhino horn contains no medical properties.
“There is no evidence at all that any constituent of rhino horn has any medical property. Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails,” says Dr. Amin.
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