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Press Release

California Auctioneer Charged in Rhinoceros Horn Smuggling Conspiracy

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs
Indictment Alleges Conspiracy to Smuggle 15 Rhinoceros Horns Valued at $2.4 Million

Jacob Chait, 34, the head of acquisitions and auctioneer of a Beverley Hills, California gallery and auction house (“Auction House #1”), appeared yesterday in Manhattan federal court in New York to face charges of conspiring to smuggle rhinoceros horns, in violation of the Lacey Act. A one-count indictment charging Chait was returned by a federal grand jury on February 15.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeff Wood for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York and Acting Director Jim Kurth for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the announcement.

 “The defendant and his co-conspirators are alleged to have engaged in a scheme to illegally traffic in the horns of highly protected rhinoceros,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood. “Illegal wildlife trafficking is a serious crime under federal law and should be vigorously prosecuted.”

“As alleged, Jacob Chait trafficked in and smuggled rhinoceros horns, further threatening an already endangered species. Rhinoceros have no known predators other than humans, and yet, driven by the illegal trade in their horns, literally worth more than their weight in gold in the black market, rhinoceros are on their way to extinction. This Office, along with our partners at the Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will continue to combat the illegal trade of rhinoceros horns fueling the senseless poaching of this critically endangered animal,” said U.S. Attorney Bharara.

 “Illegal trafficking like that allegedly conducted by these defendants is fueling the unprecedented slaughter of wild rhinos,” said Acting Director Kurth. “In Africa, a rhino is currently poached every eight hours - a rate that threatens to make the rhino extinct in the wild in less than 15 years. Our Special Agents will continue to work with the Justice Department to aggressively investigate and secure the prosecutions of individuals and criminal organizations engaged in rhino horn trafficking to protect wild populations of this imperiled species.”

According to allegations contained in the indictment:

From approximately 2009 and 2012, Chait and his co-conspirators purchased rhinoceros horns and taxidermy mounts in the U.S. and sought to sell them to foreign buyers in private deals, including in at least eight separate deals or attempted deals involving 15 rhinoceros horns worth an estimated $2.4 million. This included one alleged incident in which Chait personally smuggled two endangered black rhino horns to China in his luggage. Rhinoceros horns are worth more per pound than gold due to the high demand in Asia and increasing scarcity of supply.

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. The trade in rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory have been restricted since 1976 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by over 180 countries around the world.

Chait is charged in one count of conspiring to smuggle rhinoceros horns and to violate the Lacey Act. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The maximum sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, whom Chait will appear before on Februar 27.

On June 22, 2016, Joey Chait, the Senior Auction Administrator of Auction House #1, was sentenced by the Honorable J. Paul Oetken to one year and one day for conspiring to smuggle wildlife products made from rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and coral with a market value of at least $1 million, and to violate the Lacey Act.

This matter is part of Operation Crash, a continuing nation-wide crackdown by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice on illegal trafficking in rhinoceros horns and other wildlife crimes. A “crash” is the term for a herd of rhinoceros. This indictment represents the sixth Operation Crash case to be brought in the Southern District of New York.

An indictment contains allegations that crimes have been committed. A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

U.S. Attorney Bharara and Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood thanked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its work in this investigation. This case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice. Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Hanft and Senior Litigation Counsel Richard A. Udell with Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section in Washington, D.C. are in charge of the prosecution.

Updated April 3, 2024

Indictment [PDF, ]
Press Release Number: 17-207