Animal rights campaigners are urging antiques dealers to stop trading items made from rhino horn.

Animal charity Born Free is calling for a total ban on rhinoceros products after two engraved rhino horn cups went under the hammer in Sussex.

Warnham auction house Denhams sold the 17th and 18th century libation cups for a £22,000 and £20,000 last month.

The charity claims that while the trade in rhino horn antiques is legal in the UK, sales of the items increase interest in the artefacts as “prestige gifts”, further threatening the endangered species.

President of Born Free Will Travers said: “There is no suggestion that by selling the two items, Denhams has done anything illegal. However, the fact that items consisting of or containing rhino horn can be traded commercially at all is extremely concerning. At a time when the UK is considering measures to effectively close all commercial trade in elephant ivory, it seems incongruous, inconsistent and, indeed, immoral for any rhino horn sales – antique or not – to be permitted.

“Ultimately, rhinos will only have a long-term future if we can end the demand for rhino horn.”

Under current rules, only rhino horn in the form of worked antique items dating from before 1947 can be traded commercially.

The onus is on the seller to provide proof of provenance, and the item must sell for substantially more than the value of the weight of rhino horn it contains, in order to ensure the item is not simply ground down and the horn sold into illegal markets.

Rhino poaching has escalated in recent years and is being driven by the demand for rhino horn in Asian countries, particularly Vietnam. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine but more and more commonly now it is used as a status symbol to display someone’s success and wealth.

Denhams’ described the two cups measuring just 8cm high as “exceptional lots”.

One was engraved with magnolia buds and branches, the second with bamboo canes and leaves.

However, while mechanisms are in place in the UK to check on the provenance and value of antique rhino horn items that are to be exported outside the EU, no such official checks exist for items that are sold to UK – or EU-based buyers and no certificates are required.

Animal rights campaigners say this raises serious concerns that rhino horn, in the form of genuine or fake antiques, might be traded, smuggled out of the country, and used for illicit purposes that could further stimulate demand in Asian countries and increase the incentives for criminal gangs to go after live rhinos.

The Argus contacted Denhams for comment.