(CN) - A senior auction administrator of a Beverly Hills, Calif., gallery and auction house pleaded guilty Wednesday on federal charges of conspiring to smuggle $1 million worth of products made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral.
Prosecutors say Joseph Chait, 38, personally falsified customs forms by stating that rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory items were made of bone, wood or plastic.
During Asia Week in New York City in or about March 2011, for example, Chait was approached about the potential sale of a carving of Guanyin, an East Asian spiritual figure made from rhinoceros horn, according to court documents. Despite knowing that it was not a genuine antique, Chait and his co-conspirators accepted the rhino carving for consignment, advertised the sale to foreign clients in China and put the rhino carving on the cover of his auction house's catalogue, in connection with an auction of Asian art and antiques.
Court records on Chait's case in New York City do not name the auction house, Internet search results show that Chait ran the I.M. Chait Gallery in Beverly Hills.
After the rhino carving sold at auction for $230,000, prosecutors claim Chait offered to make a false document for the buyer to help the buyer smuggle the item out of the country. The fake invoice falsely stated that the item cost $108.75 and was made of plastic.
According to the DOJ's press release, Chait and his co-conspirators also sold ivory carvings to another foreign customer and provided those carvings to that customer's courier, even after learning that the customer had been arrested in China for smuggling ivory purchased from Chait's auction house.
Prosecutors also claim Chait and his group shipped wildlife items to third-party shippers, who then reshipped the items out of the country to foreign buyers without the required declaration or permits; provided packing materials to foreign wildlife buyers to assist them in hand carrying the wildlife out of the country; and smuggled protected wildlife into the United States without declaration or permits and then sold at auction.
The trade in rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory has been restricted since 1976 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by over 170 countries around the world. Trade in protected wildlife such as rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory has been significantly restricted in the last two years as the result of a Presidential Executive Order except for those instances where sellers can prove that the item is a genuine antique that is more than 100 years of age.
"Rhinos and elephants have been on earth for millennia but are now at grave risk due to the illegal wildlife trade," said John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, in a statement. "The United States and other destination markets have a special responsibility to help save these beloved creatures from extinction. Those in the auction industry need to be responsible and not turn a blind eye to the fact that trade in protected animal parts is highly regulated."
Chait faces up to five years in prison for conspiring to smuggle wildlife products and up to five years in prison for violating the Lacey Act. Chait's sentencing is scheduled for June 22, 2016.
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