A Chinese porcelain cup, dating back to the Ming Dynasty and touted as the “holy grail” of China’s art world, was bought by a Shanghai collector for $36.1 million at a Sotheby's sale in Hong Kong on Tuesday, setting a new record as one of the most expensive Chinese cultural relics ever auctioned.
The rare cup from the Chenghua period, dating from sometime between 1465 to 1487, measures 3.1 inches in diameter and is decorated with hens, cocks and chicks, giving it the name, “chicken cup.” According to Sotheby's, there are only 17 such cups in existence, with four in private hands and the rest in museums. Sotheby’s identified the buyer as collector Liu Yiqian, and Forbes estimates his fortune at $900 million, making him the 200th richest person in China.
"There's no more legendary object in the history of Chinese porcelain," Nicholas Chow, Sotheby's deputy chairman for Asia, reportedly said. "This is really the holy grail when it comes to Chinese art."
"Every time a chicken cup comes up on the market, it totally redefines prices in the field of Chinese art," Chow reportedly said, after the sale.
According to Chow, the 500-year-old cup would likely go on display in Liu’s Long Museum in Shanghai, which he and his wife, Wang Wei, opened in 2012. The cup had come from the celebrated Western collection of Chinese ceramics, called the "Meiyintang," and was in the possession of Swiss pharmaceutical tycoons, the Zuellig brothers, for more than half a century.
The bidding was limited to a handful of collectors and the winning bid was hammered down at $32.2 million, and the auction house’s commission brought the final price to $36.1 million. A pre-sale estimate had pegged the cup to be sold for $38.6 million.
According to Sotheby’s, the previous record for Chinese porcelain was set in 2010 by a Qianlong vase, which was sold for $32.4 million.