Chicken delight

New record for porcelain cup


The $36 million ‘chicken cup’

How much will it cost to drink from a wine cup used by a Chinese emperor? The answer emerged this week: HK$281.24 million (or a little over $36 million).

That was the price paid on Wednesday for the Meiyingtang Chenghua ‘Chicken Cup’.

As you might have guessed, that’s a world record for a piece of Chinese porcelain, according to Sotheby’s which arranged the sale during its spring auction in Hong Kong.

The small cup, which features a colourful rendering of chickens, was purchased by Liu Yiqian, the art collector first profiled in WiC26. It is thought Liu intends to display it in his Shanghai museum.

So what’s so special about the cup? According to the Beijing News it was made in Jingdezhen’s imperial kilns during its finest production period in the Ming Dynasty. This particular piece was produced some time between 1464 and 1487 during the reign of the Chenghua emperor. Unlike much of the blue and white porcelain made in the Ming era, this particular style was valued for its colours and simplicity.

Beijing News adds that such cups are a scarce commodity, largely because they were made exclusively for the emperor’s usage. Cups deemed as flawed were smashed and buried, so not many were made. Sotheby’s says that only 16 survive today (the British Museum and the New York Met each have one, for example, while six are in Taipei). Of these, only three are in perfect condition. The one sold in Hong Kong this week is among this elite group (it comes from the Meiyintang Collection, one of the most important European holders of Chinese porcelain).

Chicken cup auctions have broken records before – in 1999, for instance. But on this occasion, the sale supplants that of a Qianlong Dynasty vase, which went under the hammer in 2010 for $32.4 million.

The value of these Chenghua era pieces has soared in recent decades. Famously, the Hong Kong collector Qiu Yanzhi picked one up in 1949 for HK$1,000. Qiu (whose grandson Nicolas Chow is Sotheby’s head of Chinese ceramics) sold it in 1980 for HK$5.28 million. Another cup sold in 1999 for HK$29.17 million.

WiC got the chance to see the cup up close at a press briefing held after the auction. Given its petite size and fragility, we asked how much it weighed. Sotheby’s Chow replied that the auction house doesn’t sell items based on weight, and hadn’t put it on the scales to check. Insofar as records go, WiC wonders if that wasn’t an oversight – on the basis of the price paid per gram, the cup must be one of the most expensive items ever sold at auction.

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