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Australian government does carbon dating checks on rhino horns at auction

November 18, 2015

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By Mic Smith

Following the recent auctions of rhino horn items in Melbourne and Sydney, the Australian Department of Environment has said it works closely with auction houses on upcoming sales of rhino horn.

“In regards to recent sales at Sotheby’s and Leonard Joel, the Department liaised with the auction houses and was satisfied of the provenance of the rhinoceros horn specimens,” a department spokesperson said.

One of the items auctioned at Leonard Joels auction house, a 3kg raw horn over 50cm in length, came with a statutory declaration from the owner saying it was purchased in the mid 1960s and had a carbon dating certificate to prove its provenance. It sold for $40,000.

Another horn auctioned at Leonard Joels, about one kilogram and 30cm long also had a carbon dating certificate and statutory declaration saying it was imported to Australia in the 1950s to prove its provenance. It sold for $25000.

According the Australian Attorney General’s office, “A statutory declaration is a written statement that allows a person to declare something to be true. When you make a statutory declaration, you are declaring that the statements in it are true.”

The federal Department of Environment spokesperson said proof of the auctioned rhino horn origins is required.

“It is the responsibility of the person in possession of the specimen to provide evidence of the lawful origin,” the spokesperson said.

“In order to lawfully import or export rhinoceros horns strict criteria must be met, which involves proving the specimens were lawfully taken prior to the [1975] commencement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).”

Two other pieces which were auctioned the same week included a large Chinese libation cup auctioned Oct. 27 at Sothebys Australia in Sydney and a tiny rhino horn cup auctioned at Leonard Joels in Melbourne Oct. 25.

The large libation cup, carved and pierced to its entire length, was auctioned at Sothebys. The auction house website said it came from Adelaide’s prominent Zorich retail family, having been acquired at Sotheby’s Belgravia rooms in London almost 50 years ago.

The little rhino cup auctioned at Leonard Joels was 10.5cm high with a handle formed as intertwined mythical beasts and bands of carving to rim and base. The catalogue said it had been inherited by Melbourne descendants of a shipping magnate and China Navigation Co. agent in 19th century China. It was estimated at $2000 -$3000 but sold for a staggering $80,000.

Both Sothebys and Leonard Joels were contacted but didn’t reply.

A report in South African news website, SA People News, said many people had taken to Sothebys Australia Facebook page to “voice concerns about this being the wrong message to send”, however Sotheby’s may have moderated the comments because none appear visible on the page.

The Environment Department spokesperson said there is limited trade in rhino horn in Australia.

“Australia recognises that it is not immune to illegal wildlife trade, and has implemented stricter domestic measures to combat illegal ltrade in rhinoceros horn.”

“Current trends in Australia are that rhino horn is fetching much less than previously,” the spokesperson said.

The details of the rhino horn items auctioned at Leonard Joels included this statement: “Note relating to CITES legislation: purchasers wishing to export this item will be required to obtain the appropriate documentation from the Australian Department of Environment and further information may be required before export approval is granted.”

The radio carbon dating service used by Leonard Joels is at Australia National University in Canberra.

The head of the service Stewart Fallon said horns off rhinos killed after 1953 are quite accurate to carbon date. It’s called Bomb Carbon Dating because of the large number of nuclear bombs dropped between 1950 and 1965.

He said horns taken after 1953 show easily recognisable isotopes that are quite unique compared to horns taken pre-1953.

He said to test the date of the rhino’s death the lab tested the base of the horn and to test the date of the rhino’s birth the lab tested the tip of the horn. He said the results were accurate.

“You can measure the value in the youngest part of the horn. We know which way the horns grow so you can get within a year or two or less,” Mr Fallon said.

A rhino horn carving is more difficult to measure because it’s difficult to identify the youngest part, he said.

“It’s more of a grey area.”

It could intersect the curve at 1957 or 2005 but if that was the result the date the horn was taken would more likely to be 2005, he said.

Carbon dating tests of rhino horns taken in the 200 years prior to 1953 were less accurate than bomb dating, he said.

The lab at ANU has tested about four horns for auction houses this year and about the same number for last year.

We are only helping people who are trying to sell things the right way, he said.

Previous auctions of rhino horns at Lawson’s auction house in Australia in 2014 had drawn demands from Humane Society International to withdraw the items from auction.

Australian Financial Review journalist Peter Fish who regularly covers art auctions said rhino horn items at Australian auctions have much more appeal generally to Asian buyers (mostly Chinese) than for Western buyers.

“Whether such objects go to mainland Chinese, Singaporeans (for example) or Australian Chinese is hard to determine, especially with the anonymity offered by internet and phone bidding,” Mr Fish said.

“Auctioneers generally are prepared to divulge only snippets of information about buyers and vendors.”

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