When is a small porcelain cup with pictures of chickens on it worth $36 million?
The short answer is that it's worth what the market will bear, and in China's frothy economy that can be a stratospheric number. And art is a commodity that attracts particular interest from cash-rich buyers keen to invest their money.
On Tuesday, a Hong Kong salesroom set a new auction record for a piece of Chinese art. Not just any piece, mind you. Wreathed in imperial legend, the delicate Ming-Dynasty-era “Chicken Cup” made in the 15th century is in a league of its own: Only 19 are known to exist, of which just four are still in private hands.
“If you buy Chinese art, this is the holy grail,” said Nicolas Chow of Sotheby’s, the auction house that handled the sale. “It is the fantasy of all great collectors. There is nothing greater, nothing.”
The cup, now the most valuable piece of porcelain in any private collection, was bought by China’s biggest art collector, a Shanghai businessman named Liu Yiqian. Rising from a humble background – he had left school at 14 to help his mother with her handbag business – Mr. Liu made his fortune in stock trading. Together with his wife, he built two private museums in his hometown.
Wealthy Chinese collectors such as Mr. Liu have driven Chinese art valuations to record highs, even as critics have complained of opaque price-setting at Chinese auction houses. One of the largest auction houses is a division of a state-owned weapons manufacturer.
The wine cup, named for its charming, naturalistic depiction of a cockerel, his hen, and their chicks grubbing in the dirt, is one of a set made for the Chenghua Emperor. He is believed to have given them to his favorite concubine.
Subsequent Chinese rulers prized the tiny cups, three inches in diameter, endowing them with an aura that has fascinated collectors for centuries. Classical Chinese literature abounds with references to the cups. An enduring mystery surrounds one that disappeared from a Ming emperor’s table at the beginning of the 17th century and was said to be worth 100,000 gold pieces.
Parking hot money
But “the main thing driving up prices” in the Chinese art market “is not art history, that is clear,” says Gong Jisui, an advisor to artron.com, the biggest art information website in China. “It’s the boom in the Chinese economy and the flood of money in the market. Hot money needs to be parked somewhere.”
President Xi Jinping’s recent crackdown on official corruption, however, means that “the situation is a little tense” amongst China’s super-rich, many of whom earned their fortunes by cultivating close connections with officials, says Fabien Fryns, a Beijing-based dealer in Chinese art.
“People are lying low and not flaunting their money,” he adds.
That clearly does not faze Liu, who is renowned for his canny investments. He paid ten times more for his “Chicken Cup” on Tuesday than it fetched 15 years ago. However, Qiu Xiaojun, a former ceramics expert at the Forbidden City museum in Beijing, says: “Chicken Cups carry a message to collectors everywhere that their value will always rise,” because of their extreme rarity.
The price Liu paid "is absolutely worth it," says Mr. Gong, “if you count the aesthetic value and the resale value.”