By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An executive with a Beverly Hills gallery and auction house was sentenced on Wednesday to one year and one day in prison after admitting that he conspired to smuggle at least $1 million in animal products that included rhino horn and elephant ivory.
Joseph Chait, 38, a senior auction administrator for his family's business, I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan after pleading guilty in March to conspiring to smuggle wildlife products.
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His attorney, Judith Germano, had asked the judge for a sentence of community service. She said that Chait risked being cut off from his family, which raised him in the Church of Scientology, by cooperating with prosecutors.
"My actions were wrong and I regret them every single day," Chait said before being sentenced.
He also said that in a "weird way," he was grateful for the criminal case because it "has allowed me to break the chains of my upbringing."
Prosecutors said that Chait falsified customs forms by stating ivory and rhino horn were made of bone, wood or plastic.
After a rhino carving sold at auction for $230,000, Chait made false documents putting the value at $108.75, and saying the object was made of plastic, prosecutors said.
He and others also sold ivory carvings to a Chinese dealer and provided them to that dealer’s courier, even after learning the buyer had been arrested in China for smuggling ivory purchased from Chait’s auction house, prosecutors said.
The case comes as conservationists and law enforcement officials in the United States and globally have been trying to crack down on the illegal trade in products from the two threatened species.
U.S. authorities say rhino horn-made libation cups and ornamental carvings made from elephant ivory are particularly in demand in Asia, namely China and Hong Kong. That is resulting in a thriving black market.
Most species of rhinoceros are extinct or on the brink of extinction as a result, and elephants are under threat in many countries.
The case is not the first to involve the I.M. Chait auction house.
Actor Nicholas Cage in December agreed to turn over a rare stolen dinosaur skull he bought from I.M. Chait after U.S. authorities filed a civil forfeiture complaint seeking to take possession of the item so it could be repatriated to Mongolia.
Neither Cage nor the gallery was accused of wrongdoing in the affair.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)