Rhinoceros horn libation cup at Hansons

A cup plucked out of a garage could sell for thousands at auction after being identified as a mystical Chinese treasure believed to identify poison and hold aphrodisiac qualities. The rare, centuries-old rhinoceros horn libation cup was discovered by antiques expert Charles Hanson during a routine home visit in the Cotswolds.  

Charles Hanson with the rhinoceros horn libation cup
Charles Hanson with the rhinoceros horn libation cup. – Credit Mark Laban Hansons

Charles, owner of Hansons Auctioneers and a familiar face on TV’s Bargain Hunt and Antiques Road Trip,  said: “I  regularly visit clients’ homes to assess antiques for potential consignment to auction. I’d completed my visit and was sitting in my car, about to drive off with a wave, when the couple asked if they could show me one more thing.  

“They disappeared into the garage. Usually I don’t expect too much but this was very different. What was placed into my hands was a magical find – a rare Chinese object dating back to the late 17th or early 18th century. I instantly recognised it as a libation cup. It was beautifully carved out of rhinoceros horn and displayed intricate detail.”

He continued: “The honey-caramel object is from the Kangxi Period (16621723) of the Qing Dynasty. It would have been crafted just after the Ming period. The elegantly tapering body sits on a splayed base, rising to a flaring rim. A well-carved midsection depicts archaistic motifs while the handle features sinuous Chilong dragons, one peering over the interior rim. Another playful  dragon is carved on the opposing lip of the well-patinated cup. 

Rhinoceros horn libation cup
Rhinoceros horn libation cup. – Credit Mark Laban Hansons

“Rhinoceros horn libation cups were used for communal drinking at important ceremonial occasions in Chinese scholarly circles. They were considered magical objects. In ancient Chinese mythology rhinoceros horn was thought to contain aphrodisiac properties and to be able to detect poison. It was believed the horn would change colours to alert a drinker to the presence of poison. 

“Rhinoceros horn is considered one of  ‘Eight Precious’ symbols representing good luck and prosperity in Chinese mythology. It represents victory. Its special place in Chinese culture enhances its importance and value. 

There are numerous references in early Chinese historical literature to objects made of rhinoceros horn. It was thought by Daoists to have magical properties. By the Tang dynasty (AD 618-806) it was being carved into drinking containers. These was used at ceremonies honouring ancestors and given to scholars who were successful in examinations.  

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed the height of rhinoceros horn carvings. The Chinese had established trade with Africa, giving them access to the horn of the African rhinoceros. 

An antique rhinoceros horn libation cup
rhinoceros horn libation cup – Credit Mark Laban/Hansons

Though called libation cups, these vessels would have been primarily used for display, accompanied by beautifully crafted hardwood stands. The simple organic shapes favoured during the Ming dynasty gave way to increasingly elaborate forms during the Qing dynasty. 

“Understandably, the trade and transportation of antique rhinoceros horn carvings is regulated by law. However, antique rhinoceros horn carvings are permitted to be sold and auctioned if for purely artistic intentions. 

“The libation cup was inherited by our client’s grandfather. It is expected to create worldwide interest. We are guiding it £3,000£5,000. However, such is the demand for historically important Chinese objects it could make considerably more 

“If it achieves more than a 100 US dollars a gram it will be granted workofart status and therefore be allowed by Chinese law to return to China if buyers wish to repatriate back to its home country.” 

The libation cup will be offered in Hansons Christmas Fine Art Auction on November 30.