The foiled robbery during a viewing at Gorringes of Lewes, East Sussex, at 10.45am on Friday, March 16, was the latest in a series of raids across the country targeting rhino horn fuelled by the huge prices that it has been fetching owing to Far Eastern demand.
At Gorringes, staff and customers stepped in to save the day - but the pair of would-be robbers, who had jumped over the ceramics counter, apparently seized the wrong item anyway. Along with a cloisonné bird, they took a bamboo libation cup instead of the rhino horn example, which was locked away in a strongroom ahead of the March 21-22 sale.
Clifford Lansberry of Gorringes, who believes the raid was planned, said a customer in his sixties was the first to intervene.
"He saw them and realised what they were up to. He waited for them and as they ran along he shoved a life-size pottery Great Dane in front of them, which didn't have a great effect, but then he latched on to one of them with a sort of rugby-type tackle around the waist and was dragged halfway down the stairs. He was then shaken off, but he had a really good go at catching up with them."
Gorringes porter Murray Brickell was then able to tackle and pin down the same would-be robber, while Mr Lansberry and valuer Roger Mead caught another suspect after a chase through a nearby churchyard.
Driver's assistant Jess Stonell spotted a suspected getaway driver in the firm's car park and stopped them from leaving.
Mr Lansberry thinks that two other men seen downstairs in the saleroom acting suspiciously may have also been involved.
Gorringes have suffered break-ins before, he added, as have many Sussex salerooms over the past year, but he thinks those may all have been connected to the same individual.
"This seems to have been a different incident that's entirely rhino-related," he told ATG. "We were certainly alert to the risk of a break-in but were not expecting anything along these lines."
The Lewes raid was the latest in a series of raids linked to the illegal rhino horn medicine trade. A stuffed rhino head mount was taken from Sworders auction house in Stansted Mountfitchet in February 2011 and a rhino head was seized from a museum in Haslemere, Surrey, in May, while similar thefts also took place in Belgium in June and July.
Mr Lansberry now wants to alert other auctioneers to the dangers.
"The jewellery department might worry about a smash and grab, but you don't expect it as much on the oriental side, but obviously with the money involved these days... doing that in the middle of a viewing day is shocking."
Having said that, the government-imposed immediate and total ban on the commercial export of rhino horn from the UK earlier this month, as reported on last week's front page, is likely to have a highly significant impact on future sales... and, in turn, could well reduce the attraction of rhino horn to the criminal fraternity.
As for the mystery hero, Clifford said: "He had some bruises but is otherwise ok as far as we're aware. He didn't stick about afterwards, just disappeared; a slight pause and he was off."
The three arrested at the scene and later charged with robbery were all male. Two were aged 17, the third 32. They appeared at Brighton Magistrates' Court on March 17, where the teenagers were bailed and the man remanded in custody. They are all due to appear before Lewes Crown Court on March 30.
Police have released CCTV footage of a fourth man they believe was involved in the incident. If you have information call 101 quoting serial 474 of 16/3 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.