When it comes to price, so-called chicken cups are far from being chickenfeed . . . as was made clear April 8 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong when a single cup fetched the equivalent of US$36.3m., exclusive of buyer’s premium. This set a new world record for a piece of Chinese ceramics. For avid and well-heeled collectors of Chinese ceramics, few pieces engender as much excitement as the small Ming dynasty-era bowls commonly known as “chicken cups.”
The bowl was bought by Shanghai billionaire property developer and collector Liu Yiqian who we have previously written about.
These bowls, quite small enough to be held comfortably in the palm of an average-sized hand, were created in a strictly limited period between 1465 and 1487, and are so-called for the chickens painted on their sides. Only 19 are known to exist, and of those just four are in private hands, with the rest in museum collections.
Part of the Meiyintang collection owned by Switzerland’s Zuellig family, this same bowl was also the last chicken cup to go up for auction, in 1999. Also at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong, it brought US$3.7 million—at the time, a record for a piece of Chinese porcelain.
Prices for Chinese ceramics have skyrocketed since, but reverence for these cups goes back even further. Indeed, it has lasted since imperial times during the Ming dynasty. Several works of Chinese literature refer to the chicken cups, often describing how emperors and nobles spent fortunes to obtain them – even in the 17th century.
- Of 19 chicken cups known to exist, 15 are in museums. Photo courtesy EPA
“This is the crowning glory for collectors,” says Nicholas Chow, Sotheby’s Chinese ceramics expert.
The painting on the cup is a naive, almost childish, coloured depiction of a rooster and a hen taking care of a young chick—a parable for Confucian virtues that extend to an emperor’s looking after his subjects. The simplicity is what makes this cup so desirable, said Mr. Chow, and the artist’s “impressionistic” style is atypical for that time.
But, as usual with Chinese porcelain, it is a case of caveat emptor. Mr. Chow says the chicken cups are the most-copied bowls in China, and even the Chenghua examples in museums have aroused suspicion. In a Sotheby’s catalogue essay about the chicken-cup sale, ceramics expert Regina Krahl has written that former Sotheby’s Chairman Julian Thompson had maintained that the two examples at the Palace Museum in Beijing were fakes. (The museum declared in an official 1999 catalog that they are actually authentic.) Today, antique markets in China offer imitations for as little as a few yuan apiece. “It’s like hanging a copy of the Mona Lisa,” Mr. Chow said. “Everybody’s heard of the chicken cup.” But only the wealthiest of collectors will be able to enter the fray and bid for this very special offering, which is almost certainly the real thing.
Contacted today on the telephone by The Wall Street Journal, the buyer appeared a trifle indignant at being questioned about the record price. “Why do you all care so much about the price?” He affirmed that he thought the price he had paid was “reasonable”. “I bought it only because I like it.”
The under-bidder was London’s leading buyer of Chinese art, Giuseppe Eskenazi. He was the buyer the last time the cup came on the market in 1999. After that purchase he sold it on to an Italian collector.
With acknowledgement to Jason Chow, Scene Asia and European Press Agency