Rhino horn 'mistaken for wood'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 1995, 12:00am

EXHIBITORS of a world-famous rhinoceros horn sculpture by the late German artist Joseph Beuys claimed yesterday that they did not know the horns were real until Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) officials turned up to confiscate them on Friday.

Consuls from 15 member states of the European Union, said to be upset at what they see as bureaucratic interference in the arts, plan to meet today to discuss the controversy.

'Beuys would have liked this incident,' Spanish Consul-General Enrique Iranzo said last night. 'He was a provocateur. Maybe we are playing his game.' The sculpture, consisting of two rhino horns connected by blood-filled plastic tubing, was removed from the main stand at the Young Art in Germany After Beuys exhibition at the Arts Centre Pao Galleries on Friday after the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) asked the department to investigate.

All rhino horn brought into Hong Kong must have a permit from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and an import licence from the Hong Kong Government.

Dr Uwe Nischke, the director of sponsoring group the Goethe Institut, said the exhibit had the correct export permits but he did not realise a special import permit was needed.

'All the documentation, the bill of lading, the catalogues, gave no idea what it was.

'When this happened we asked the curator in Germany 'what's the matter? what is it?',' he said.

The curator of the exhibition, Jost Reinert, returned to Germany on Thursday. He could not be contacted yesterday.

Dr Nischke, Arts Centre assistant exhibitions director Irene Ngan Shuk-fun and German Consul for Culture Theophile Kiddes gave a statement to AFD officials yesterday.

'Not until the officers came to the gallery did we know they were real rhino horns,' she said.

'I thought it was wood. For art objects people usually don't use the real thing.

'If we had known it was real we would have applied for a permit,' she said.

Rob Parry-Jones, a consultant for WWF's trade monitoring arm, Traffic East Asia, agreed that it looked like wood. But he said the Government must stick to the rules.

'I have nothing against it being displayed, in fact I'm all for it. But we can't expect the medicinal community to listen to us if other people display rhino horn without a permit.' AFD representative Pauline Ling Po-lin said the German permits would be checked and a report written.

If the Legal Department decided to prosecute, the sculpture, valued at $10 million, would have to be confiscated as evidence.

The maximum penalty for importing highly endangered species is a $500,000 fine or a year's jail.

But Ms Ngan said the exhibit was due to leave Hong Kong for Taipei on Monday. And Dr Nischke said any damage to the fragile sculpture would cause an international outcry.

The European Working Group on Culture would meet today to discuss the 'turmoil' to show support for Dr Nischke, said Mr Iranzo.

Dr Nischke said: 'They feel this is a kind of interference in arts activities.

'It is interesting that the group has got alarmed.'