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Libation cup. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

A Texas art appraiser has pleaded to smuggling rhino horns into China. Below are the details from the U.S. Department of Justice:

  

Texas Man Pleads Guilty to Rhino and Ivory Smuggling Conspiracy
June 24, 2014

Ning Qiu, a resident of Frisco, Texas, and an appraiser of Asian art, pleaded guilty today in federal court to participating in an illegal wildlife smuggling conspiracy in which rhinoceros horns and objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory worth nearly $1 million were smuggled from the United States to China.

Qiu, 43, who has worked as an Asian antique appraiser for seven years, pleaded guilty in Plano, Texas, to a one count information charging him with conspiracy to smuggle and violate the Lacey Act.

Qiu was identified as part of “Operation Crash” – a nationwide effort led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute those involved in the black market trade of rhinoceros horns and other protected species.

According to documents filed in federal court, Qiu admitted to acting as one of the three antique dealers in the United States paid by Zhifei Li, the admitted “boss” of the conspiracy, to help obtain wildlife items and smuggle them to Li via Hong Kong. Li was sentenced on May 27, 2014, in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey, to serve 70 months in prison for his leadership role in the smuggling conspiracy. Li arranged financing, negotiated the price and paid for rhino horn and elephant ivory. He also gave instructions on how to smuggle the items out of the United States and obtained the assistance of additional collaborators in Hong Kong to receive the smuggled goods and then smuggle them to him in mainland China.

In pleading guilty, Qiu admitted that he worked at an auction house in Dallas as an appraiser of Asian artwork and antiques, specializing in carvings made from rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory. Qiu admitted to meeting Li in 2009 through his work at the auction house, and then entering into a conspiracy with Li whereby Qiu traveled throughout the U.S. to purchase raw and carved rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory for Li, often receiving specific instructions from Li on which items to buy and how much to pay. Upon purchasing the items, Li transferred funds directly into Qiu’s bank accounts in the U.S. and China. After acquiring the items for Li, Qiu arranged for them to be smuggled to a location in Hong Kong, which was provided by Li.

As part of his plea, Li admitted that he sold raw rhinoceros horns worth approximately $3 million – approximately $17,500 per pound – to factories in China where the horns are carved into fake antiques known as zuo jiu (which means “to make it as old” in Mandarin). In China, there is a centuries-old tradition of drinking from intricately carved “libation cups” made from rhinoceros horn. Owning or drinking from such a cup is believed by some to bring good health, and true antiques are highly prized by collectors. The escalating value of such items has resulted in an increased demand for rhinoceros horn that has helped fuel a thriving black market, including recently carved fake antiques. The leftover pieces from the carving process were sold for alleged “medicinal” purposes even though rhino horn is made of compressed keratin, the same material in human hair and nails and has no proven medical value.

Between 2009 and 2013, Qiu purchased and smuggled to Hong Kong at least five raw rhinoceros horns weighing at least 20 pounds. Qiu smuggled the raw rhino horns by first wrapping them in duct tape, hiding them in porcelain vases and falsely describing them on customs and shipping documents, including by labeling them as porcelain vases or handicrafts.

As part of the plea agreement, having considered Qiu’s cooperation and assistance in securing a conviction for Li, the government agrees to recommend to the sentencing judge that Qiu serve a 25-month prison sentence and pay a $150,000 fine. Sentencing will be before District Court Judge Richard Schell on a date to be determined by the court.

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