Joseph Chait, 38, the senior auction administrator of a gallery and auction house located in Beverly Hills, California, pleaded guilty on March 9 in federal court in New York City to two counts related to wildlife trafficking.
He was charged with conspiring to smuggle wildlife products made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, and coral with a market value of at least approximately $1 million and with falsifying documents. According to court documents, Chait falsified customs forms by stating that rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory items were made of bone, wood, or plastic.
On August 29, 2010, Chait and the auction house sold what was described as a “Rare Rhino Horn Walking Cane,” made of rhinoceros horn, according to court documents. (The auction house is not named in court papers, but the lot numbers, objects, and dates all correspond to sales held by I.M. Chait in Beverly Hills, California.) The estimate was $3000/4000, and the cane sold for $5490.
In October 2010 Chait e-mailed the buyer’s assistant, stating that “because of possible customs problems, we cannot state that it is rhino horn on the invoice. We have to call it something else like wood, or bone, etc.,” court papers say. Another e-mail stated, “[W]e will ship to the Hong Kong address. There should be no problems with customs. Hong Kong is very easy to deal with as compared to mainland China. In my experience, we have not had any problems with shipping something and calling it something else.”
Chait shipped the cane to an address in Shanghai, China without a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permit and used a false customs declaration stating that the object was made of wood with a total value of $100.
During Asia Week in New York City in March 2011, Chait was approached about the potential sale of a carving of Guanyin, an East Asian spiritual figure, made from rhinoceros horn. Despite knowing that it was not a genuine antique, he accepted it for consignment, advertised it to foreign clients in China, and put it on the cover of the auction house’s catalog for an auction of Asian art and antiques.
The rhino carving sold at auction for $231,800 on September 25, 2011. According to court documents, Chait offered to provide a falsified receipt to assist the buyer in transporting it across international borders. “I’ll just call it plastic or resin carving or something like that,” he allegedly said. Chait allegedly made a fake invoice for a “Plastic Carved Figure of a Seated Deity,” stated that the carving was made of plastic, and indicated that it had sold for $108.75, not $231,800.
Chait also sold “wildlife” carvings to a Chinese dealer and provided those carvings to that customer’s courier even after learning that the dealer had been arrested in China for smuggling protected wildlife products. The Chinese dealer, unable to leave the country because of his arrest, was a big buyer. He spent $255,711 for eight purchases from August 2010 to September 2011.
Court papers outlined other offenses such as shipping three lacquered ivory snuff bottles to a foreign buyer with a customs declaration calling them “3 plastic carvings”; calling a Chinese carved hornbill skull a “plastic carving” in customs documents; and indicating that eight ivory carvings were “modern bone carvings.”
Chait e-mailed a German buyer in 2009 to tell him he couldn’t ship ivory. “You have two choices: 1) give us an address of your friend or relative in the USA that we can ship the piece to. 2) Take a risk and ask us to ship the item to you in Germany, but not call it ivory and call it something else.”
Chait e-mailed an Australian customer in 2010, saying, “Ivory is illegal to ship outside of the USA, so the only way we can ship it is to call it something else on the customs form when it is shipped…You must decide what to call [it] (such as bone, plastic, wood, etc), and you must tell me what you want to call it on the customs form.” Chait notified the buyer that if the shipment were seized by customs, the buyer was fully responsible for it.
A New Zealand customer got an e-mail from Chait in 2010 noting that the only way to ship ivory to New Zealand was to call it something else, such as bone or plastic.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stated: “Joseph Chait and his co-conspirators trafficked in wildlife, including rhinoceros horns, worth a market value of at least $1 million, deliberately violating laws put in place to protect endangered species.”
Chait faces a maximum of five years in prison for conspiring to smuggle wildlife products. His sentencing is scheduled for June 22.