California auctioneer pleads guilty to $1 million ivory, rhino horn smuggling

An executive with a Beverly Hills gallery and auction house has pleaded guilty of conspiring to smuggling at least $1 million in animal products that included rhino horn and elephant ivory, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.

Joseph Chait, 38, a senior auction administrator with I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers, could be sentenced to up to five years in prison on the wildlife smuggling charge, the U.S. Justice Department said.

He also faces a maximum prison term of five years after pleading guilty to violating a federal law that bans trade involving illegally gained wildlife, they said.

Chait falsified customs forms by stating ivory and rhino horn were made of bone, wood or plastic. After a rhino carving sold at auction for $230,000, Chait made false documents putting the value at $108.75, and saying the object was made of plastic, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Lawyers for Chait were not immediately available for comment.

The case comes as conservationists and law enforcement officials in the United States and globally have been trying to crack down on the illegal trade in products from the two threatened species.

Rhino horn sells at prices higher than gold in places such as Vietnam, where a belief with no basis in science has emerged in the past few years that it can be used to cure cancer.

South Africa, which has more rhinos than any other country in Africa, saw nearly 1,200 of the animals killed by poachers in 2015, its environment ministry said.

From South Sudan, where conservationists say elephants are being slain by both government forces and rebels, to South Africa, there is an arc of illegal animal slaughter in the continent.

Global trade in rhino horn is banned under the terms of U.N. convention CITES. Elsewhere in Africa, elephant poaching for ivory has been rampant, with Asia also the main market for the illicit commodity.

Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage in December agreed to turn over a rare stolen dinosaur skull he bought from I.M. Chait after U.S. authorities in New York filed a civil forfeiture complaint seeking to take possession of the item so it could be repatriated to Mongolia.

Neither Cage nor the gallery was accused of wrongdoing in the affair.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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