Rhinoceros Libation Cups

July 29, 2011

The Chinese antiques market continues to grow as evidenced by the recent Antiques Roadshow episode that featured a set of rhinoceros libation cups valued at over a million dollars.   This morning as I flipped through the channels I came across the Today show and saw a plug for a segment with the owner of the cups.  Given all the media attention  I thought it might be appropriate to talk a little about why they are so valued and some of the symbolism involved with rhino horns in Chinese culture.

The Penn Museum actually has several carved horns in its Asian section.  Three from China and one from Nepal.

The two pictured here were collected in the 1890’s and are some of the earliest pieces to come into the collection.   The horns are said to be able to detect poison in liquids and are also used as medicine (although this is a rather dubious claim).  The rhinoceros was also once found in Sichuan province but has since been hunted to extinction.  The first horn (C374) features  a simple landscape scene devoid of any humans while the second piece (7301) has a deeply carved design of trees and rocks and two human figures toward the base.  The second one also has a Victorian age stand similar to the ones in the Antiques Road Show.

When I did a search on the database I also found that we have some Mandarin squares, Chinese badges of rank, that depict rhinoceros horns as well.The image on the left shows the full Mandarin square while the  close up underneath shows  a purple rhino horn flanked by a set of pearls and a piece of coral.  The rhino horn is one of eight treasures associated with scholars and the literati.  The other seven include: a wish granting pearl, double coins, coral, a sceptre, double lozenges, a stone chime, and an ingot.  Many of these show up on Mandarin squares in the wave patterns underneath the various animals.  The rhino horns tend to be very stylized so it can be hard to pick them out.


The third cup is a much larger rhinoceros libation cup. The piece is deeply cut with elements of squirrels and grapes across its length.  Squirrels and grapes were a popular motif in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and associated with reproductive power.  Rhino horns are said to have been taken as an aphrodisiac which may explain the artist’s choice in symbolism.

It’s a bit strange to see so much focus put on how much the rhino horns are worth monetarily.  Last week no one knew about rhino horn libation cups, and this week they are all the rage.    This has always been a bit of an issue with me when it comes to the Antiques Roadshow and cultural artifacts and antiquities.  How do we celebrate the art of the world and get people excited about culture without creating a demand that leads to looting and poaching?  These issues continue to loom 40 years after the Pennsylvania Declaration and museums will have a big role to play in how we proceed with protecting such treasures for future generations to enjoy.