Monday, July 25, 2011

Horns o' plenty

The PBS tv series "Antiques Roadshow" broke its own record on Saturday while taping episodes in Tulsa that will air between January and June 2012. The appraisers valued something at more than $1 million! It is a collection of 5 Chinese carved rhinoceros horn cups that may be worth as much as $1.5 million, the most valuable find in the show’s 15-year history. The pieces, which the owner had begun collecting in 1970, are estimated to be from the late 17th c. to early 18th c. If the cups still contained their original scrolls - which had been removed and sold for $300 - it would have added $200,000-$300,000 to their value.

Curious about these cups, I went in search of information about their use. The details accompanying the cup from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in the British Museum indicate that such cups survive from the 7th c., by which time these once ritual objects were given to scholars who were successful in their examinations. Here are examples from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Many cups dating mainly from the 17th and 18th c. have been auctioned over the years, and here is a sampling:
  • Qing dynasty cup offered by Paul Fraser Collectibles in March 2011 and was appraised at $10,000-15,000
  • An 18th c. cup auctioned by KollerZurich in March 2010 went for 32,800 Euros
  • Qing dynasty cup offered by LiveAuctioneers in October 2009 was appraised at $10,000 - $15,000
  • Qing dynasty cup auctioned by Christie's in March 2011 for $302,500
  • Qing dynasty cup auctioned by Christie's in March 2010 for $578,500
  • A 17th c. cup auctioned by Brown & Co. in March 2010 was appraised for £20,000-£30,000, but fetched £80,000
  • Qing dynasty cup offered by the Hôtel des Ventes auction house in July 2001 sold for 365,000 Swiss Francs - over 30 times its appraised value
Rhinocerous horns have been sought out for centuries because of their color and translucence when carved (above are closeup and macroscopic photos, and the accompanying article discusses the cleaning of these antiques). For that reason, and their supposed healing properties, all 5 rhino species are hovering on the edge of extinction. The trade in rhino horns spurs illegal poaching, which has seen an upswing in recent years. Their import - including decorative items carved after 1947 - is forbidden in countries that signed the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Rhinocerous may have represented "horns of plenty" to hunters centuries ago, but not any more - which makes these antiques even more valuable.

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