Charging ahead: the rising prices of rhino horn antiques

This Monday, a sale of Ancient Paintings, Ancient Furniture, Works of Art, Silverware, Jewels and other collectibles will take place in Belgium, courtesy of auction house Rops.

Comprising 900 lots, the sale will include an impressive array of minor paintings, carved wooden ornaments, chairs, tables and the decorative arts.

Perhaps the most notable lot, however, is a pair of black rhinoceros horns - one 950g and the other 430g. Together they are expected to sell for €6,000-8,000.

In recent times, pieces made from rhino horn have become increasingly popular, valuable ...and controversial. The numbers of rhinos worldwide is dwindling, and in countries such as the UK efforts are made to enforce rules which treat trade in a similar way to ivory: confirmed antiques are acceptable, but nothing 'new' (in the British case, created after 1947 - and raw rhino horn can't usually be sold at all).

Part of the reason that rhino horn is increasingly popular is the increasing power of Chinese collectors, as there is a traditional Chinese belief that the horn has special properties. The horn can be ground down to make homeopathic remedies.

Recently arguments over the sale of 'antique' rhino horn pieces has been increasing in intensity in the UK as the frequency of sale of pieces such as rhino horn libation cups (one of which was sold at George Kidner of Lymington for £58,750) increases. (For other examples see links below.)

Black rhino horn
Black rhino horn (€6,000-8,000)

Some traders have claimed that the frequency increase is due to a returning fashion - that the antiques are simply coming out of the back of owners' cupboards - and in any case that the demand for horn in treatments (which creates an insatiable demand) would not financially justify grinding down rhino horn cups for that reason.

In other words, buyers would not be content to turn a blind eye to an 'antique' which has actually been created recently from fresh rhino horn, and auctioneers therefore remain under the usual pressure to ensure that an antique carving is just that.

Of course, a market in collectibles made from a substance may rise without the worth being based directly on the value of that substance. The value of rare gold coins tends to rise with the value of gold, even though anyone melting them down is always likely to make loss.

Nevertheless the sheer frequency of trading in rhino horn antiques suggests that a number are not genuine.

Therefore, for a collector or investor looking to buy antiques of this kind (which could well prove lucrative) but wishing to stay away from controversy and legal troubles the course is clear: buy pieces with cast iron provenance from traders that can be trusted.


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