Ming-era 'chicken cup' breaks record for Chinese porcelain

The Meiyintang Chenghua 'Chicken Cup' is displayed by deputy chairman for Sotheby's Asia Nicolas Chow after it was sold for a record price in Hong Kong on April 8, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
The Meiyintang Chenghua 'Chicken Cup' is displayed by deputy chairman for Sotheby's Asia Nicolas Chow after it was sold for a record price in Hong Kong on April 8, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - A Ming Dynasty wine cup broke the world auction record for Chinese porcelain in Hong Kong on Tuesday, after it was bought for US$36.05 million (S$45 million, HK$281.24 million) by Shanghai tycoon Liu Yiqian, Sotheby's said.

The tiny white porcelain cup, decorated with a colour painting of a rooster and a hen tending to their chicks, was made during the reign of the Chenghua Emperor between 1465 and 1487.

The sale set a record for Chinese porcelain, according to the auction house, beating the US$32.58 million paid for a gourd-shaped vase from the Qianlong period in 2010.

It also far exceeded the previous world record for Ming Dynasty porcelain, which was set by a blue and white vase that fetched HK$168.66 million in 2011.

Mr Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia, described the cup as the "holy grail" of Chinese art.

"There is no more legendary object in the history of Chinese porcelain. This is an object bathed in mythology," he told reporters after the sale.

"It has gone to an extraordinarily good home in Shanghai in the collection of Liu Yiqian."

Bidding started at HK$160 million, with Mr Liu making the winning offer by telephone after a lengthy battle among hopeful buyers.

Mr Liu, a taxi-driver turned financier now aged 50, is one of China's wealthiest men and among the country's new class of super-rich scouring the globe for artwork.

He is worth an estimated US$1.6 billion and has two museums to his name.

Mr Liu made headlines in the art world when he bought a Song-era scroll for US$8.2 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York in September - only to have it dismissed as a fake by experts. He stands by its authenticity.

Mr Liu made his first fortune speculating in Shanghai's newly established stock market in the 1990s, but now runs a huge conglomerate active in several industries.

The chicken cup represents the pinnacle of Ming-era porcelain production, according to Sotheby's.

"That period in terms of porcelain production was really the peak of material refinement," Mr Chow told AFP before the sale, adding that later emperors were so enamoured by the design that the chicken cup was copied extensively.

"When you buy a chicken cup... you don't just buy the object, you're buying centuries of imperial admiration for these objects," he said.

Fewer than 20 such cups are known to exist, with just four in private collections, Mr Chow said, adding that this would become the only genuine chicken cup in China upon its return.

An 18th century Qing dynasty vase appeared to set a record auction price for Chinese porcelain of £51.6 million (US$86.22 million), when it went under the hammer in 2010. But the item was not paid for.

The vase was later sold in a private transaction for less than half of its hammer price, between £20 million to £25 million, Bloomberg News reported in early 2013.

Hong Kong has emerged as one of the biggest global auction hubs alongside New York and London, fuelled by China's economic boom and demand from Chinese and other Asian collectors.

"We've seen in this entire week, extraordinary prices" for the Sotheby's Spring Sales, Mr Chow said.

"It's an extremely good sign for the present (economic) climate."

A necklace made of 27 jadeite beads broke the world record for jadeite jewellery on Monday, Sotheby's said, selling at HK$214 million - more than twice the estimated price.

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