HONG KONG - A rare Ming-era wine cup broke the world auction record for any Chinese porcelain on Tuesday, selling in Hong Kong for US$36.05 million (S$45.36 million) to Shanghai tycoon Liu Yiqian, Sotheby's auction house said.
The tiny white porcelain cup, decorated with a colour painting of a rooster and a hen tending to their chicks, was made during the reign of the Chenghua Emperor between 1465 and 1487.
The price sets a new record for Chinese porcelain, according to Sotheby's, beating the previous record held by a gourd-shaped vase from the Qianlong period, which sold for HK$252.66 million (S$41 million) in 2010.
The price far exceeded the previous world record for Ming Dynasty porcelain - which was held by a blue and white vase that sold for HK$168.66 million in 2011.
Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia, described the cup as the "holy grail" of Chinese art.
"There is no more legendary object in the history of Chinese porcelain. This is an object bathed in mythology," he told reporters after the sale.
"It has gone to an extraordinarily good home in Shanghai in the collection of Liu Yiqian."
Bidding started at HK$160 million, with Liu putting up the winning bid over the telephone after a lengthy battle among hopeful buyers.
A taxi-driver turned financier, 50-year-old Liu is one of China's wealthiest people and among a new class of Chinese super-rich scouring the globe for artwork.
Worth an estimated US$1.6 billion and with two museums to his name, Liu made headlines in the art world when he bought a Song-era scroll for US$8.2 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York in September - only to have it dismissed as a fake by a trio of renowned experts. He stands by the scroll's authenticity.
The chicken cup represents the pinnacle of Ming-era porcelain production, according to Sotheby's.
"That period in terms of porcelain production was really the peak of material refinement," Chow told AFP, adding that emperors of later Chinese dynasties were so enamoured by the design that the chicken cup was copied extensively.
"When you buy a chicken cup... you don't just buy the object, you're buying centuries of imperial admiration for these objects," he said, adding that it could be the most forged piece of Chinese porcelain.
Less than 20 such cups are known to exist, with just four in private collections, Chow said, adding that this will become the only genuine chicken cup in China upon its return.
Hong Kong has emerged as one of the biggest auction hubs alongside New York and London, fuelled by China's economic boom and demand from Asian collectors, especially wealthy Chinese buyers.