A Shanghai collector bought a rare Ming Dynasty cup that’s touted as the “holy grail” of China’s art world for US$36 million at a Hong Kong auction on Tuesday, smashing the previous world record price for Chinese porcelain.
Sotheby’s said Liu Yiqian was the winning bidder for the small white cup, which measures just 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) in diameter and is more than 500 years old, Associated Press reported. The vessel is known as a “chicken cup” because it’s decorated with a rooster and hen tending to their chicks.
Bidding lasted seven minutes, according to press reports, with Liu placing his winning bid by phone.
Asked why he paid such an astronomical price for the wine cup, the Chinese billionaire told the Wall Street Journal, “I bought it only because I like it.” He said the price was quite reasonable.
Liu, who sold leather handbags in the streets of Shanghai and moonlighted as a taxi driver until he discovered stock trading at age 27, is the founder of Sunline Investment Company, reportedly a top 10 shareholder in over 10 companies spanning medicine, chemicals, finance and real estate.
China Daily named him the second most influential figure in the 2009 stock market, a year of economic recovery which saw Liu invest over US$50 million each in such companies as BOE Technology Group, Poly Real Estate, Beijing Capital Development, Gemdale Corporation, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, China Sports Group Industry, Huadian Power International Corporation and Dongfang Electric Corporation.
Today, Liu, 50, is the 200th richest person in China and the country’s biggest art collector. He and his wife Wang Wei opened the Long Museum in Shanghai—China’s largest privately owned art museum—in 2012 to display his vast collection.
The museum houses a wide-ranging collection of blue-chip Chinese contemporary art on the ground floor, Mao-era “Red Classics” from 1949-1979 on the second, and traditional works and ancient artifacts on the third floor, wrote Jing Daily when the Long Museum opened.
The chicken cup breaks a number of records, including most expensive piece of Chinese art ever sold, most expensive piece of porcelain ever sold, and, according to BBC, the most expensive cup.
According to Bloomberg, the previous record for Chinese art was set in October 2013, when Chinese property developer Zheng Huaxing paid over US$30 million for a bronze Buddha statue.
The collector cup, which was made in imperial kilns during the emperor Chenghua’s reign in the 15th century, surpassed the previous record of HK$252.7 million paid for a yellow-ground famille-rose vase in October 2010, also at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong, said WSJ.
Chicken cups have long been prized among wealthy Chinese, with classical literature referencing the small wares, saying aristocrats and emperors would spend fortunes for a single sample. Porcelains made during the Chenghua period are regarded as the most refined by collectors.
Nicholas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, told SCMP that the cup is perhaps the most forged piece of Chinese porcelain throughout history. “There are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of copies going around in China,” he said.
According to Sotheby’s, only 17 chicken cups exist in the world, and the one sold on April 8 is the one in the best condition. Of the 17, four are in private hands and the rest are in museums. This particular cup was owned by Philippines-born businessman Stephen Zuellig.
Personally, I don’t see why there’s all this hoopla. My wife and I once owned a fine Chinese tableware service for 12 with matching western dinnerware that was gifted to us by my parents about 25 years ago. I distinctly remember it arriving at my house in three impressive shipping crates from somewhere in Guangzhou. Most of it was broken, of course, but among the ceramic remains were five wine cups festooned with chickens that I’m sure contain as much lead-laden paint and glaze as Liu’s multimillion-dollar chicken cup.
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