Ming bling: $36M for 'chicken cup' in record for China porcelain

'Chicken cup' auction draws $36 million bid

A Shanghai collector bought a rare Ming Dynasty cup touted as the "holy grail" of China's art world for $36 million at a Hong Kongauction on Tuesday, smashing the world record price for Chinese porcelain.

Sotheby's said Liu Yiqian was the winning bidder for the small white cup, which measures just 3.1 Inches in diameter and is more than 500 years old.

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The vessel is known as a "chicken cup" because it's decorated with a rooster and hen tending to their chicks. It was made during the reign of the Emperor Chenghua, who ruled from 1465 to 1487. Sotheby's said there are only 17 such cups in existence, with four in private hands and the rest in museums.

Ming Dynasty 'chicken cup' smashes record in $36 million sale at Sotheby's in Hong Kong.
Source: Sotheby's

"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."

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For such a prized item, bidding was limited to a handful of wealthy collectors and when the winning bid was hammered down at $32.2 million, the standing-room only crowd broke into applause. The auction house's commission brought the total to $36.1 million.

Sotheby's said the previous record for Chinese porcelain was set in 2010 when a gourd-shaped Qianlong vase sold for $32.4 million.

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It's the latest of several records set at the auction house's Hong Kong spring sales, indicating that the region's super-rich are still spending despite fluctuating economic growth. Chow said the cup would likely go on display in Liu's Long Museum in Shanghai. 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.

—By NBC News