Second South Florida man nabbed in illegal trade of rhino horns

Elita Decorative Arts listed this “libation cup” carved from a black rhino tusk in a March auction.
Elita Decorative Arts listed this “libation cup” carved from a black rhino tusk in a March auction. Elite Decorative Arts

Rather than risk having a cache of illegal black rhino horns seized by federal agents cracking down on the grisly trade, a Palm Beach County antiques dealer told an undercover agent posing as a broker that he’d be willing to risk arrest and hope for a “slap on the wrist.”

That slap came at a steep price: $1.5 million.

In a deal with federal prosecutors last week, Christopher Hayes, owner of Elite Decorative Arts, pleaded guilty to trafficking in endangered rhino horn, elephant ivory and protected coral. Court documents say Hayes sold six endangered black rhino horns weighing about 19 pounds with a retail value over $400,000.

Hayes, 55, becomes the second South Florida dealer in a year netted in Operation Crash, an ongoing effort aimed at keeping the increasingly violent international wildlife trade from growing in the U.S. In October, Gene Harris, owner of the eclectic Art By God shops in Miami, was sentenced to three years probation and a $10,000 fine for selling two mounted rhino horns for $60,000.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure rhinos don’t go extinct in our lifetime,” said Edward Grace, the deputy director for law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In just the past few years, the price of rhino horn has skyrocketed, fueled in part by increasing affluence in Asia where the horns — sold in powder or carved into cups — are thought to cure both hangovers and cancer. Horns that just 10 years ago sold for about $2,000 now sell for between $20,000 and $30,000 a pound, Grace said. The U.S. is the second-largest consumer of wildlife products behind China, he said.

Rising prices have in turn lured organized crime, drawn by the low-risk, high-yield transactions: a kilo of rhino horn costs more than a kilo of heroin or cocaine but carries no harsh penalty, Grace said. Last year, a former California-based drug trafficker indicted in Miami in 1986 with Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar was charged with dealing in horns.

As rhinos in the wild decline — only five species survive — the horns are also increasingly prized as antiques. In 2011, the popular Antiques Roadshow television program appraised five antique cups at $1.5 million, setting a record.

Possession of antique rhino horns is not illegal, but dealing in them requires a complex permitting process. Horns must be at least 100 years old. Once provenance is established, dealers must also obtain permits under the Endangered Species Act.

Hayes, who included pictures of libation cups and giant ivory tusks on his Facebook page, declined to comment through his attorney. He is “mortified that he allowed himself to be a participant in conduct that threatens endangered species,” said his attorney, Ben Kuehne.

According to his plea, Elite Decorative Arts orchestrated a complex shipping process in which the firm falsified shipping documents and arranged for third party shippers.

Elite “played a key role in the supply chain,” said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.

Elite, a third-generation owned auction house according to its web site, agreed to sell an uncarved black rhino horn for a Plantation man in January 2012, court records show. Three months later, Hayes sold the horn to a Texas buyer for $70,000, plus a $15,000 auction fee. Hayes made a second sale after auctioning an illegal horn for a New York seller in May to a Virginia buyer. The $60,000 deal earned Hayes $9,000. Hayes arranged four more auctions that included horns, ivory and protected corral between May and December 2012 for about $130,000, court records show.

An undercover agent working on Operation Crash — a herd of rhinos is called a crash — said Hayes struggled with the legitimacy of his deals. But if confronted, Hayes said he would tell authorities he was just “so sorry and that he made a mistake.”

As part of the deal, federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a lighter sentence of three months on probation. Hayes, whose son suffers from a congenital heart defect and is a candidate for a transplant, could have faced five years in prison.