Rhino Horn Cups
Rhino horn cups are, often highly carved, cups made out of rhino horn. The removal of a rhino's horn invariably results in the animal's death.
Background and collecting information
The vast majority of antiques arouse few ethical concerns, however, a handful remain contentious even among conscientious collectors, the rhino horn cup being a prime example.
Today, rhino horn cups are generally considered art objects. They were, in the main, created several hundred years ago by craftsmen and artisans, during a period when rhinoceros were more plentiful than they are currently. Rhino horn cups were considered precious from the moment of creation, carefully carved in relief, and beautifully embellished. Their colour, feel, and patina make them easily identifiable and they reside in the permanent collections of several esteemed museums and art galleries.
In 2012, there are only five surviving species of rhinoceros, however, and these endangered creatures are still threatened by poachers all too aware of the, largely 'medicinal', value of their horns. The result is that many people find the trade in rhinoceros-horn antiques grossly unethical, even when it is legal.
That said, it is generally thought that the desire for contemporary rhino horn has little to do with trade in antique, rhino artefacts. According to Matt Lewis, a senior program officer at the World Wildlife Fund, the legal trade in antique rhinoceros-horn artefacts has little, if any, impact on the poaching that continues to decimate rhinoceros populations.
Demand for fresh rhinoceros-horn does not arise from the antiques world, from people desperate to get their mits on a valuable, albeit modern, cup, nor is it driven up by press reports about antique carvings. This is because rhinoceros-horn carving is an ancient art that is simply not practised any longer; therefore, modern artisans have no desire for fresh rhinoceros horn.
Instead the rhino horn trade is rooted in Eastern medicine. It has been wrongly suggested that powdered rhino horn cures cancer, which, despite being false, has driven the price up considerably. In Vietnam, for example, powdered rhino horn is now worth more, gramme per gramme, than gold.
In March 2011, the European Commission temporarily suspended all internal trade in rhinoceros horn, regardless of age. A week after the European Commission's announcement, several million-dollar cups that had been appraised in 2011 came up for sale at Sotheby's. Three of the record-setting collection of five cups did not sell, and the two that did sold at the low end of their value estimates.
Had Doug Huber's five-cup collection been put up for auction before the new trading restrictions were put in place, it would probably have commanded a significantly higher price.
The most valuable rhino horn cups will be marked with a makers mark or signature: Hu Xingyue, who invariably signed his works by adding a square four-character seal on the base of his cups which are all decorated in an archaic style, is among the most valuable rhino horn cup carvers known.
A Hu Xingyue-carved rhino horn cup sold for HK$5,780,000 at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2012.
A rhino horn libation cup sold for $130,000 at I. M. Chait Auctioneers in July 2012.
A rhino horn libation cup brought $270,000 at Elite Decorative Arts in March 2012.
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