Exposed

An insider reveals the dark side of the antler trade.

The fact that big bucks have prices on their heads is common knowledge. Some Texas ranchers even set their prices by the Boone and Crockett scale-“You want a buck that’ll go 150 inches B&C;? Okay, partner, that will run ya’ this much. But be careful, bucko, if you shoot one bigger, it’ll cost ya’!” It’s after a buck has been harvested that things get a little weird-like burglars stealing mounted heads instead of televisions and “antler buyers” stalking big-buck contests, to name some of the recent phenomena. Because there’s no “buyer’s guide” out there to nail down prices, and because many of the deals happen behind closed doors, we contacted Larry Huffman, the world’s foremost collector of whitetail antlers, to get some answers. He agreed to give us an insider’s view of the size and scope of both the legal trade of deer antlers and what some call the “black market.”

We chose Larry Huffman because insurance companies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several state game departments have accepted his appraisals of whitetail antlers. And because he has been either directly or indirectly involved in the purchase of more than 200 sets of trophy whitetail antlers and is widely considered to be one of the most ethical whitetail collectors in the United States. Here’s what he had to say about buying and selling deer antlers.

Outdoor Life: How many buyers and sellers are there?
Larry Huffman: There are only five or six regular buyers in the whole country who are in the market for racks priced at more than $10,000. It quickly gets too expensive for the small collector. Over the past decade, the biggest markets for top-end trophies have been myself, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. There are probably about four or five small collectors in each state who own as many as 20 decent heads. There are also about a half-dozen opportunistic antler brokers in each state who are looking to buy racks cheap from people so they can sell the antlers to a collector for a good profit. Any of the illegal activity associated with buying and selling antlers generally occurs on this level.

OL: How big is the “black market?”
LH: I’ve been very careful to avoid any dealings with deer that might have been taken or sold illegally. I have a policy that I never buy any recently killed bucks. That policy alone eliminates nearly all of the illegal heads. People call me every week to try to sell me a head. I never take those calls. As a result, I’ve kept myself pretty far away from any black market.

I know some very dishonest brokers, people who will try to pass off an illegal rack as legitimate to make some quick cash. I suspect this is what most people consider to be the black market. But it is not as big as most people think. For example, I’m aware of only one contract-poaching incident in which the poachers were shooting bucks to sell. Everyone involved got busted and the main guy even lost his business over it. You have to remember that the average buck has almost no value to a collector. It takes a pretty amazing head to command any kind of price, and deer of that magnitude are pretty hard to hide. If a rack is not legitimate it gets pulled out of the system pretty fast. So when a poacher starts looking around for someone to pay top dollar for his 180-inch set of antlers, it’s a pretty small group that has the contacts to move the head and the ability to keep it under wraps. The poacher is just as likely to run into an undercover enforcement agent as he is an actual broker. It’s a pretty small network.

**OL: **What happens to illegal heads?
**LH: **If someone buys an illegal head knowingly, he can be charged for the offense. Even if he buys the head unknowingly, the rack will be seized.

OL: Have you ever had a deer confiscated from your collection?
LH: Only once. That buck was foundead in Illinois and then purchased by a broker who sold it to a collector who ultimately sold it to me. It’s illegal to sell racks that are found dead (or road killed) in Illinois. Of course, I was assured that the head had been legally obtained when I bought it; in fact, I was given a written guarantee. The federal agents were trying to pinch the original broker. They asked if they could use the head as evidence against the guy in court. Supposedly, the head would be returned when the case was closed. But when the DA negotiated terms for a guilty plea on associated tax evasion charges, he gave the defendant a deal that stipulated that he couldn’t be convicted of any other crimes that occurred during the same time period. That time period was also when the head was originally obtained in Illinois, so the broker was never charged with that illegal purchase and sale. I never got the head back. Through legal action I recovered my money from the broker.

OL: How do you make sure that you don’t buy an illegal head?
**LH: **As I mentioned, I don’t buy recently killed bucks-I only buy historical deer. Of the 84 heads that were in my collection, only three were actually purchased from the hunter who bagged the animal. Even those three had been dead for a long time. All the others were purchased from other collectors. I also prefer to buy heads that have been entered in the record books. Entering heads requires that the hunter sign an affidavit of fair chase, a process that puts heads under greater scrutiny.

OL: Should antlers be insured?
LH: My collection was insured for $1.5 million. [BRACKET “Huffman recently sold his entire collection of 84 whitetail heads to Bass Pro Shops.”] The premiums ran about $6,500. It’s not tough to get an insurance company to insure a collection with high premiums. On the other hand, a guy with only a single big rack will pay a lot more for that one head than I paid for each of mine. In most cases, you would have to add it to your homeowner’s policy as a separate rider. Unless the buck is world-class, it is probably more trouble than it’s worth.

OL: How can you tell if antlers are fake?
LH: I’ve seen some very good repair jobs on broken points that made it through scoring sessions. I think scorers should carry small metal detectors. That would help. Also, there’s a simple test you can do to tell if a rack is real. Most of the resins used to make antlers will melt when heated. Take a pin and heat it red-hot and touch it to the questionable antler. If the pin melts the antler, it’s a fake.

OL: Will the recent growth of Quality Deer Management cause the value of trophy antlers to go down?
LH: That may happen on the smaller and medium-sized racks in some collections, but it is very unlikely to happen to the really big ones that have a history. These antlers should hold their value forever. Even these days, with a growing number of trophy bucks being killed every year, there are still only 13 bucks known to be in existence that have a net typical score over 200 inches. That’s still a pretty small number.

OL: What is the most expensive set of antlers you are aware of?
**LH: **The James Jordan buck, which was the world-record typical for almost 80 years before it was surpassed by Milo Hansen’s Saskatchewan buck, was in my collection. It had an appraised value of $150,000. There are a couple of other bucks that would probably be in that category too. The Hole-in-the-Horn Buck found in Ohio is one of them.

Another is the Missouri Monarch, the current non-typical world record. It was found dead many years ago outside St. Louis and is now owned by the state of Missouri. Milo Hansen’s world-record typical also falls in this range.

** OL:** What’s the most unusual sale you’ve heard of?
LH: I met with Fred Goodwin a few years ago. Fred was one of the original antler collectors-he was doing it back in the early 1930s when he was just a teenager. Fred told me his story about the “Father Maney buck,” which was shot back in 1860. In 1934 Fred drove down to Bangor, Maine, from his home in Sherman Mills. It was a 100-mile drive. He wanted to buy the rack from a relative of Father Maney.

Fred asked Miss Maney to set a price for that “old set of horns.” She told him five dollars. Fred only had three dollars. Fred drove all the way back home and borrowed two dollars from his dad. He wouldn’t tell his dad what it was for and finally his father relented and loaned him the money. Fred promptly drove back down to Bangor and bought the rack for five dollars. When Fred’s dad saw the rack he was angry. “You mean to tell me you fooled away more than two dollars for that rickety set of bones?” he said. The Father Maney buck is valued at roughly $5,500-not bad for a “rickety set of bones.”

OL: What advice do you give hunters who want to sell their deer antlers?
**LH: **Don’t sell them, period. People ask me all the time if I want to buy their antlers. I always tell them not to sell. They should never go down in value, so you don’t need to worry about that. Also, I’ve never talked to anyone who sold the antlers from a buck they shot and didn’t regret it later. Trophy whitetails come around only once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.dwin a few years ago. Fred was one of the original antler collectors-he was doing it back in the early 1930s when he was just a teenager. Fred told me his story about the “Father Maney buck,” which was shot back in 1860. In 1934 Fred drove down to Bangor, Maine, from his home in Sherman Mills. It was a 100-mile drive. He wanted to buy the rack from a relative of Father Maney.

Fred asked Miss Maney to set a price for that “old set of horns.” She told him five dollars. Fred only had three dollars. Fred drove all the way back home and borrowed two dollars from his dad. He wouldn’t tell his dad what it was for and finally his father relented and loaned him the money. Fred promptly drove back down to Bangor and bought the rack for five dollars. When Fred’s dad saw the rack he was angry. “You mean to tell me you fooled away more than two dollars for that rickety set of bones?” he said. The Father Maney buck is valued at roughly $5,500-not bad for a “rickety set of bones.”

OL: What advice do you give hunters who want to sell their deer antlers?
**LH: **Don’t sell them, period. People ask me all the time if I want to buy their antlers. I always tell them not to sell. They should never go down in value, so you don’t need to worry about that. Also, I’ve never talked to anyone who sold the antlers from a buck they shot and didn’t regret it later. Trophy whitetails come around only once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.