A small Ming dynasty-era bowl dubbed the “chicken cup” sold for US$36.3 million at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong recently, setting a record for the most expensive Chinese porcelain ever sold at auction.
The buyer, Shanghai-based collector Liu Yiqian, didn’t flinch at the final tally.
“Why do you all care so much about the price?” he said in a telephone interview after the sale, adding that he thought the amount he paid was reasonable.
“I bought it only because I like it,” said Mr. Liu, who made his fortune in finance. He also owns, along with his wife Wang Wei, the Long Museum in Shanghai, a private museum that houses a portion of his vast collection.
The cup was made in imperial kilns during the emperor Chenghua’s reign in the 15th-century.
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.
The small cup, which got its nickname thanks to the painted depiction of chickens on the side of the cup, is one of 19 chicken cups known to exist in the world. All but four are in museum collections.
The auction room at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre was packed, with more than 250 people sitting and standing to see the final price. Bidding lasted seven minutes and by the time it was over, it was a two-way tussle between Mr. Liu, who placed his bid on the phone via Sotheby’s Asia Chief Executive Kevin Ching, and Giuseppe Eskenazi, a London-based dealer.
The cup was part of the Meiyintang collection owned by the Swiss Zuellig family. The Zuelligs have been selling off their collection gradually in recent years.
Nicholas Chow, Sotheby’s top expert in Chinese ceramics, called the chicken cup the “holy grail” of Chinese porcelains. “Every time a chicken cup comes to market, it redefines prices,” he said after the sale.
The cup’s new owner, Mr. Liu, has previously been at the center of controversy in the Chinese art world despite being one of the country’s largest collectors. Mr. Liu is confident about the provenance of the chicken cup, adding that he plans to eventually exhibit his new acquisition at his museum for the public to view.
“I will show it at an appropriate time,” he said. “You will see it.”