|At the $3.3 million Oct. 4-5 Asian Work of Arts sale by Leslie Hindman and Associates, the uncontested “star” of the show was a highly carved 17th-18th century rhinoceros horn, selling for an astounding $292,000.
Earlier this year, an older man walked into the Tulsa Convention Center with a box containing items he had picked up in the 1970s. He had no idea of the value of five Chinese cups and was hoping an appraiser from the Antiques Roadshow could identify what he had.
Appraiser Lark Mason told local news station KTUL: “As each one came out of the box, my jaw started to drop a little more. Then my colleagues looked and their jaws dropped as well.”
When Mason told the Tulsa man his set of five Chinese cups carved from rhinoceros horns was worth $1-1.5 million, it set off another “jaw-dropper.”
“I was hoping he wasn’t going to collapse,” Mason said, “but he said that he was glad that he didn’t need his inhaler.”
The show, airing in July, tagged the 17th century rhino horn cups the most expensive item appraised during the show’s 16-year history.
Carved rhino horns have a long – and exalted – history within China. The rhino horn was imbued by Chinese culture to have special medicinal powers. Although that belief is highly contested today, it stubbornly refuses to go away.
Merely a pound of powder ground from the rhino horn is said to exceed an asking price of $45,000 on the black market, making it pricier than diamonds, gold and cocaine.
Thieves, breaking into museums during the past year, are not always interested in artwork or jewels. They want rhino horns, which The New York Times reports can sell for more than $200,000 each. And they’re ripping off horns from long-dead rhinos that have been in European natural history museums for decades. The Times reports more than 30 such thefts this year.
It has also led to a rash of rhino poaching.
Unlike the horns of other species, the rhinoceros’ does not have a bony core. The core of rhino horns is made of keratin, the same substance as hair and nail material in other mammals.
As for the belief that rhino horn powder is good for you, Dr. Raj Amin at the Zoological Society of London maintains there’s no evidence that is true. “Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails,” he told PBS’ Nature program.
Rhino collectors are always quick to point out they are collecting these items for its cultural values, antiquity and artwork. These collectors, as a whole, would pale at the thought of grinding down such ancient artwork.
But animal activists and conservationists believe differently. At an August convention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), information was disseminated to members of the European Union that alleged antique carved rhino horns bought at auction can net the buyer a profit should it be sold on the medical black market. (see related story)
“It is disturbing that the prices of the antiquities have gone up proportionately to the prices being paid for rhino horns on the black market,” says Rhishja Larson, founder of SavingRhinos.org. “There is evidence to suggest that antiquities are entering the illegal market.”
It’s the chemical composition – the keratin – that not only makes the rhino horn unique, but also gives it the pliability within the artist’s hands and the “patina” acquired through natural aging. Horns that are centuries old develop a jade-like luster.
Historians maintain that rhinos were hunted in ancient China, at least during the Qin (B.C. 221-B.C. 206) and Han (B.C. 206 – A.D. 220) dynasties. Rhino hide was used to make armor, and the horns were used as cups and powdered medicines.
“Three thousand years ago the horns were hung on the body,” says Sarah Zhu, owner of Fine Asian Antique Art Appraisal and Consulting Services in San Francisco. “They were worn by men on the wrist, or sometimes as a necklace. They were highly valued, even then.”
But, it was during the Ming (AD 1368 – AD 1644) and Qing (AD 1644 – AD 1911) dynasties that rhino carving became a highly valued art. Even after the extinction of the Chinese rhinoceros (due to overhunting and climate changes), rhino horns were imported into China from Asia and Africa for their exquisite carving.
“It was only something for the very rich,” Zhu says. “Especially during the Ming Dynasty, much of the carving was traded with the West, the Europeans. Some of these eventually came to America later. The Asian rhinoceros – especially those from the mountains – the quality was always better. The African horn carvings are not as valued. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with the make-up of the core (of the horn).”
The horns were put over fire to very high temperatures, according to Zhu, until they became soft enough to manipulate into the desired shapes. The softened horns were then allowed to cool and harden before carving designs on the exterior part of the horn.
During the late Qing Dynasty (AD 1644 – AD 1911), the art of rhino horn carving – passed from generation to generation – came to an end. The Chinese government with a weakening economy and the dwindling of overseas rhinoceros herds brought an end to the art.
Truly antique rhinoceros carvings are rare, Zhu, who travels throughout the world appraising such ancient Chinese artifacts, says.
“I think there are only about 4,000 pieces in the world,” she says. “I, personally, know of 2,000 of those pieces in collectors’ hands – in America, Hong Kong and elsewhere.”
And, the demand is high. Whereas once the Chinese were forced to sell to the Western markets to realize any money for the art, today’s economy has reversed the trend, Zhu says. In short, the Chinese are buying back much of their heritage, she says.
“When they were created, the Chinese were poor,” she said. “Or only the very rich bought them. Much of it was sold to the West. But, now the Chinese market is becoming stronger. China is becoming a lot richer. There are very rich people in China. Whereas it was too expensive before, now there are Chinese who can afford to compete at auction for the horn.”
And, as a result of more intensive competition, prices have risen exponentially.
At Sotheby’s New York sales in 2008, a late 17th or early 18th century libation cup brought $79,000 – more than doubling its estimate – while a pair of 19th century horns carved with intricate openwork motifs soared to $229,000. When last sold, in 2002, they went for less than $30,000. At auction, fine examples of exquisitely carved rhinoceros horn are now three or four times as high as in 2000.
“An antique – 17th and 18th century-carving can bring over $200,000,” Zhu says. “It depends on how heavy they are and the fineness of the caring. The 19th century pieces are not as valuable. But, a rhino horn – if they’re heavy and finely carved – they can sell for over $500,000.”
As in any antique the value is not solely dictated by the size or color. Another important factor is the overall rarity (Asian as opposed to African horn) and quality of each piece, with signed pieces by known and recognized carvers being especially desirable.
Eric C. Rodenberg