HONG KONG – A Shanghai collector paid a record $36 million Tuesday for a rare Ming Dynasty cup that's touted as the "holy grail" of China's art world.
Several records have been set at Sotheby's spring sales in Hong Kong, continuing a trend of sky-high prices in the art world driven by the newly super-rich buyers in China and developing countries.
The dainty, white cup from the 15th century measures just 3.1 inches in diameter and is known as a "chicken cup" because it's decorated with a rooster and hen tending to their chicks. Sotheby's describes the cup as having flawless translucent sides with its lively scene painted continuously around its sides.
It was made during the reign of the Ming Dynasty's Chenghua Emperor, who ruled from 1465 to 1487. Sotheby's said only 17 such cups exist, with four in private hands and the rest in museums.
"There's no more legendary object in the history of Chinese porcelain," said Nicholas Chow, Sotheby's deputy chairman for Asia. "This is really the holy grail when it comes to Chinese art."
The previous record for Chinese porcelain was set in 2010 when a gourd-shaped Qianlong vase sold for $32.4 million, Sotheby's said.
For such a prized item, bidding was limited to a handful of collectors and when the winning bid was hammered down at $32.2 million, the standing-room-only crowd applauded. The auction house's commission brought the total to $36.1 million. A pre-sale estimate was a maximum $38.6 million.
The auction house's Hong Kong spring sales show the region's super-rich are still spending despite fluctuating economic growth. At Sunday's sale of modern and contemporary Asian art, Asian collectors bought nine of the top 10 priciest lots.
"Definitely the mood in Hong Kong at this moment, in Asia, is buoyant," said Chow.
Sotheby's identified the buyer as collector Liu Yiqian, and Chow said the cup would likely go on display in Liu's Long Museum in Shanghai, which he and his wife, Wang Wei, opened in 2012.
Liu is a middle-school dropout who drove a cab before becoming a multimillionaire. Forbes estimates his fortune at $900 million, making him the 200th richest person in China.