Rhino Horn Poachers Hit World Museums

August 26th, 2011

Today the “New York Times” reports that as many as 30 museums in Europe have experienced thefts of rhinoceros horns in 2011. A recent example occurred on July 28, when the horn of a stuffed rhino that had been on display since 1907 at the Ipswich Museum was unceremoniously snapped off. Two other rhino horns, including one still attached to its skull, were also grabbed. Ignored was a gold-leaf Egyptian death mask on loan from the British Museum.

Turns out a lot of misinformed people believe the horns have medicinal value, which has sent their black-market prices soaring. In the Times article, a detective in the art-and-antiques unit of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, Ian Lawson, estimated that a single horn can sell for as much as $200,000, while horn powder is going for around $40,000 per pound. As of this morning, gold was trading at well under $2,000 per ounce, or $30,000 or so per pound.

While it’s probably obvious that stealing a rhinoceros horn to grind it up into dust, let alone killing a living rhino for the same purpose, is a disgraceful and indefensible practice, a few weeks ago, we wagged our finger at “Antiques Roadshow” for its admiration of antique rhino-horn art. The cause of our consternation was the taping of an episode in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a Roadshow appraiser, Lark Mason, was shown a quintet of beautifully carved rhino-horn cups. He appraised them at more than $1 million, making these decorative antiques the highest priced objects ever on the popular PBS show.

At the Ipswich Museum in England, Rosie the rhinoceros is now hornless. Photo by David Corio for The New York Times

At the time, we were struck by the contrast between what “Roadshow” appeared to be doing (i.e., celebrating the artistry and value of these 17th- or 18th-century Chinese pieces) and the message promoted by another PBS program, “Nature,” which just a few years earlier had bemoaned the fact that, “All five of the world’s diverse species of rhinoceros have been brought to the edge of extinction because of human appetite for their distinctive horns.”

One reader of our article chided us for judging “Antiques Roadshow” before we had even seen the episode with the horns, which will air in 2012. “So the assumption is that during the appraisal, the expert doesn’t make mention of the affect the production of these cups had on the animal population?” asked Erin. “I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he does – having watched the show, they are not exactly short on information regarding an item.” Others thought we had raised a non-issue: “These were made centuries before the idea of conservation even existed.” noted Penny. “They don’t have to discuss ivory every time it is appraised; why this?” But a few people shared our confusion. “These things are beyond repulsive,” said Attie. “Shame on Antiques Roadshow for giving them one minute of time.”

What do you think? Should rhino-horn objects, even aesthetically significant ones, be banned from public view, or are they part of our cultural history? To learn more about the current state of the five remaining rhino species, check out the events around World Rhino Day, whose supporters include organizations like savingrhinos.org and Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin.

2 comments so far

  1. Eric Kirkbright Says:

    Ahhh banned from “Public” view. Sounds good to me! Lets increase the currency value of the objects even more! And as an added bonus, think of all the tusked critters being killed to supply demand for “Real” rhino horn!

    I like the way you think. You’ve seem to have a pharmacalogical grasp of the situation. Have you worked for Phizer, or a less reputable drug cartel?

  2. AR8Jason Says:

    On PBS and Antiques road show … I find it is not an issue as the horns involved were pre ban and pre knowledge of conservation.

    On the medicinal use of rhino horn, it is largely or even wholly in the Asian community and I don’t believe the people that hold such beliefs and are willing to pay that much money are going to be easily swayed with a scientific rebuttal.

    On the museum thefts. I am shocked at the lack of reasonable security for the things entrusted to their protection. Who would allow the public access to touch $20.00 US Gold pieces? The Queens Jewels in the Tower of London? Yet knowing the value of the horns, and the fanatical desire some people have to acquire the horns, they have left them behind “velvet ropes” for security, or as in the picture, without velvet ropes.

    On the ban of public view. I am not big on bans, and to ban them from public view would solve nothing. Firing some museum managers, and hiring ones that would at least put a plexiglass partition between people and the horns (I would suggest much more) would be a step in the right direction.

    People that choose to own such pre-banned objects, must watch out for themselves, and are asking for trouble if they don’t arrange security for the items, but I don’t think they are evil. With more articles talking about the money that can be made on the sell of them, there will be more people after them.

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