China 'chicken cup' could sell for record $48 mil

HONG KONG - A rare Ming-era Chinese wine cup, one of only 19 known to exist, could fetch a record US$38 million (S$48 million) or more when it goes under the hammer in Hong Kong next week, auctioneers said Saturday.

The small 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 to 1487, Sotheby's auction house said.

It could sell for an estimated HK$300 million (S$$48.7 million) or more on Tuesday, deputy chairman for Sotheby's Asia Nicolas Chow said.

If it does, it will break the world record for the sale of any Chinese works or art or porcelain.

Currently, that record is held by a gourd-shaped vase from the Qianlong period, which sold for HK$252.66 million in 2010.

The estimate also exceeds the world record for Ming Dynasty porcelain - currently held by a blue and white vase from the period that sold for HK$168.66 million in 2011.

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 said, adding that emperors of later Chinese dynasties were so enamored 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.

Only 19 such cups are known to exist, with just four in private collections, Chow said.

The price of Chinese porcelain, he added, is set to rise, with materials scarce and demand "extremely high."

An extremely rare flower-shaped Ruyao porcelain bowl fetched HK$208 million in April of 2012, smashing pre-sale estimates by about three times and setting a new record for a piece of ceramic from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

Over 3,700 lots with an estimated worth of more than HK$2.5 billion will be sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong spring sales this year, the auction house said.

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 cash-rich mainland Chinese buyers.