Animal Kingdom Crimes

Ex-Dallas Auction Gallery employee smuggles $1 million in rhino horns and elephant ivory to China

Ex-Dallas Auction Gallery employee smuggles $1M in rhino and ivory

Black Rhino
All species of rhinoceros are protected by U.S. and international laws. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

A former Dallas Auction Gallery employee has admitted his role in an international wildlife smuggling ring. Ning Qiu, a 43-year-old Frisco resident, pleaded guilty to participating in a rhino horn and elephant ivory smuggling conspiracy on June 24 in federal court. 

According to the Department of Justice, Qiu was one of three U.S. antiques dealers who worked with Zhifei Li, the boss of the operation, to smuggle protected wildlife items into Hong Kong. Qiu told authorities that he met Li through his work at the Dallas Auction Gallery in 2009 and agreed to join his smuggling ring.

The Dallas Auction Gallery advertises itself as "a major player" in the Asian antique and fine art market, and its biannual Asian auctions produce over $5 million in sales. Despite the historic use of rhino and elephant products, all rhinoceros species are protected by U.S. and international laws, and the commercial sale and exporting of elephant ivory is heavily regulated and does not allow raw ivory.

An employee at the gallery said they no longer deal in ivory; the U.S. government enacted legislation in February that bans nearly all imports.

Li, who was sentenced to 70 months in prison, arranged the financing for the rhino and elephant products. Qiu traveled around the U.S. to purchase raw and carved rhino horns and elephant ivory, which he smuggled into China by wrapping them in duct tape, hiding them in vases and falsely identifying them as porcelain in customs documents. It's estimated that Qiu's exploits netted nearly $1 million. 

Li admitted to selling the rhino horns to Chinese factories where they were made into fake antique libation cups — an item prized by collectors. As recently as 2012, Dallas Auction Gallery sold ivory bracelets and rhino horn libation cups purported to be from China's "late Ming-early Qing" period. The rhino cup sold for $91,875. 

"The escalating value of such items has resulted in an increased demand for rhinoceros horn that has helped fuel a thriving black market, including recently carved fake antiques," the Department of Justice said in a release announcing Qiu's guilty plea.

Qiu is expected to serve 25 months in prison and pay a $150,000 fine. He will be formally sentenced at a later date.