Auctioneer Sentenced for Wildlife Smuggling

     (CN) — A senior auction official at a Beverly Hills, Calif., auction house was sentenced Wednesday in federal court to one year and one day in prison and a $10,000 fine for conspiring to smuggle wildlife products made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral.
     On March 9, 2016, Joseph Chait, 38, pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle wildlife products and for violating the Lacey Act. Chait ran the I.M. Chait Gallery in Beverly Hills.
     Prosecutors say the smuggled wildlife products had a market value of at least $1 million.
     “Conspiring in the trafficking of endangered wildlife is a serious crime, and those involved in the auction industry should take note that facilitating this trade can result in prison,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General John C. Cruden said in a statement. “The African Elephant, the rhinoceros, and coral are all deeply threatened species that have undergone dramatic losses in recent decades as the trade in them has become highly lucrative. We must stop this trade, and we will vigorously investigate and prosecute those engaged in it.”
     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.
     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.
     Prosecutors claim that 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.
     According to court records, 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.
     As a result of a recent Presidential Executive Order, trade in protected wildlife such as rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory has been significantly restricted in the last two years, except for those instances where sellers can prove that the item is a genuine antique that is more than 100 years old.
     Rhinoceros are an herbivore species of prehistoric origin and one of the largest remaining mega-fauna on earth. They have no known predators other than humans. All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international law. Since 1976, trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a treaty signed by over 170 countries around the world to protect fish, wildlife, and plants that are or may become imperiled due to the demands of international markets.

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