THE downfall of a Cotswold auctioneer who admitted stealing a valuable rhinoceros horn from a client was revealed today as he narrowly escaped a prison sentence for his crime.

Chris Surfleet, 35, formerly of Millenium Way, Cirencester, but now living in Chester, pleaded guilty at Gloucester Crown Court to stealing a rhinoceros horn from Christine Kulpa, a client at Cirencester-based Moore Allen and Innocent, while he was working there as a senior auctioneer in November 2007.

The court heard that the rhino horn, which was worth around £5,000, was from a protected species and it can not be sold legally.

Julian Kesner, prosecuting, said the horn ended up in the far east and would have been ground down and used in Chinese medicine, where the substance can command a price of up to £3,000-£5,000 per kilo.

The company held onto the horn as there was anticipated to be a change in the law in the future.

Mrs Kulpa’s principal dealing at the firm was with the defendant and he told her they should keep it and they may be able to sell it on but she would be lucky if she would receive £200 for it.

"This being a fraction of the £5,000," Mr Kesner told the court.

Surfleet left Moore Allen and Innocent in 2009 and it was only when Mrs Kulpa wrote to the firm asking for the horn back that the theft was exposed.

Mr Kesner said: "It was only because the defendant had left the auction house otherwise it would have been kept under wraps."

Richard Thomas, defending, said that the allegation had cost Surfleet his career, his engagement and he had to move back to his home town of Chester.

He said that in the antiques trade news of Surfleet’s charge had spread fast and he had no chance of getting another job within the profession.

"It has in effect destroyed his life," Mr Thomas said. "He had been working in the auctioneer trade for a period of 17 years after leaving school.

"As a result of the allegations he has in effect been blackballed in the auctioneer trade. It’s a small group of people – everyone knows everyone."

Surfleet was given a six-month prison sentence suspended for 18 months, ordered to pay £2,500 compensation in six months, fined £250 costs and must complete 150 hours of unpaid community service.

Judge William Hart told Surfleet: "You were a young man in your early 30s with no doubt a career ahead of you.

"You have thrown it all away with a moment of dishonest folly. You breached the trust of your customer and I really don’t understand why you did it."