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"Holy grail" of Chinese porcelain nets record bid for Sotheby's

By Euan McKirdy, CNN
updated 10:51 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
The world-record
The world-record "chicken cup," perhaps the most sought-after item of Chinese porcelain
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A small "Chicken Cup" breaks the record for a Chinese porcelain artifact sold at auction
  • An ultra-rich Chinese collector bought the object for more than $36 million
  • Hong Kong, now an international auction hub, is popular among collectors from China
  • Cleaners at a luxury hotel in the city mistakenly threw out a valuable painting

Hong Kong (CNN) -- The auction room -- standing room only -- broke into applause when the hammer finally went down. On sale was a tiny, white cup decorated with chickens, and the buyer was a prolific art collector from Shanghai, Liu Yiqian.

At a price of HK$281.24 million ($36.05 million), it was a record sale for auction house Sotheby's -- the highest price reached for a Chinese porcelain artifact. The previous record, HK$252.6 million ($32.4 million), was reached in 2010 for a Qianlong period vase, also at a Sotheby's sale.

"Holy grail"

The 500-plus-year old Meiyintang Chenghua "Chicken Cup," is one of a reported 17 existing worldwide, most of which reside in museums, with a small number -- like Liu's new acquisition -- in private hands. It is so-called because of the decoration painted on its surface, showing two roosters, and a chicken tending her chicks.

"About a hundred years after they were made, in the late Ming dynasty, they were already highly sought after by emperors," Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia and international head of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, tells CNN.

"By the late 17th century they were considered the most expensive objects money could buy."

The record-breaking piece was the latest apogee in a spiraling global art auction market.

The auction house describes it as "arguably the most celebrated porcelain throughout the centuries." The piece was fired in the imperial kiln during the 15th century.

Liu will house the incredibly rare item, known in collectors' circles as the "holy grail" of Chinese ceramics, in his private Long Museum in Shanghai.

Chinese money, Chinese art

Liu is one of China's ultra-wealthy with an estimated net worth of $900 million, a former taxi driver who made his fortune in finance. He has said he "doesn't care" about the price of the cup.

Growing economic power from China, especially from super-rich Chinese collectors like Liu has contributed to Hong Kong's transformation into one of the world's auction hubs, and inflated prices around the globe.

"I think we're in a one-way elevator upwards in terms of prices for Chinese art," says Chow. "I think there's no possible drop in the price of Chinese antiques."

However, given the significance of this sale and the rarity and fame of the piece in question, Chow believes that the record is safe for a while.

"Objects of this kind of rarity ... there aren't many of them so I can't see (this record being broken) for a few years."

Art or garbage?

The sale does raise questions about the value of art in today's market, especially coming hot on the heels of the news that cleaners in a luxury Hong Kong hotel accidentally threw out a painting valued at almost HK$29 million ($3.7 million). The South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese ink wash painting, "Snowy Mountain," part of an auction hosted by the Grand Hyatt hotel, was seen being dumped by cleaners on security footage.

The garbage was taken to a Hong Kong landfill but attempts to recover the painting so far have remained fruitless.

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