Yongzheng chicken bowl comes to light in Scotland

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Sun Yumei’s daughter, Lucy, holds the Yongzheng chicken bowl for sale in Scotland

A rare Yongzheng chicken bowl has come to light in Scotland. Chinese Art in Scotland have been asked to sell the bowl by an anonymous collector, who is simply described as ‘a well known international film director’. No further information is to be given out as the owner who, it is understood, is very ill wishes to protect his identity at this sensitive time.

Genuine old chicken cups or bowls, correctly ascribed to their period, are in considerable demand these days. Most prized are 15h century Chenghua reign bowls and last year Shanghai collector Liu Yixian paid a record US$36.3m hammer for such an example.

Chicken cups have, of course, been much copied over the years and, even, Liu Yiqian has authorised copies of his own purchase at around $60 US.

“This is the crowning glory for collectors,” says Nicholas Chow, Sotheby’s Chinese ceramics expert.

The painting on the cup bought by Yixian 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 new discovery is not in perfect condition. There are signs of use and wear to the inside and hairline cracks visible to the base.

Chinese Art in Scotland director, Sun Yumei, says they are ‘completely satisfied’ with the authenticity of their chicken cup. ‘Everything about it is right: the translucence, the whiteness of the porcelain and its fragility. It is well painted in the doucai tradition and we are sure it is right.’ And what will be the price?

‘Understandably, it will not appear on our website (chineseartinscotland.co.uk). There are a few parties possibly interested but, most likely, if it is not sold privately, it will eventually go to auction. Meantime, we shall enjoy having it around.’

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Yongzheng mark to the base of the cup

 

Buyers not chicken over £88,000 chicken bowl

We wrote recently about the world record price of over US$36 million for an original Chenghua chicken cup sold last month by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Whilst the originals are few in number and fairly well recorded, they are, of course, heavily copied and in China you can pick up a copy for just a dollar or two.

Which is probably why West of England auctioneers Woolley & Wallis were cautious over an 8 cm. diameter chicken bowl offered in yesterday’s Asian Sale. It was a bit small for a bowl, perhaps, but rather too large to be a cup . . . However, the chicken looked pretty kosher painted in the slightly naïve style associated with Chenghua chickens.

The auctioneers noted in the catalogue the Quianlong seal mark but would only venture that it was ‘probably’ of the period. It did, however, boast a good provenance: from the collection of Lt Col John Grenville Fortescue (1896-1969) of Buckinghamshire and Cornwall (in fact, Woolley & Wallis racked up £300,000 in sales yesterday for items from the Fortescue Collection).

4 chicken bowl Woolley & Wallis

Estimated at £5,000-8,000 – about right for a Quianlong copy – it rocketed up to a hammer price of £88,000. Now we seem sure to see a period when chicken cups and chicken bowls soar to heights previously unknown to the humble chicken.

Chicken cup is far from chickenfeed . . . at US$36.3m.

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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