Skip to main content

"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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:53 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
updated 6:19 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
updated 5:39 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
updated 12:32 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT