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Rare $39 Million Ming Dynasty Cup to Be Part of Auction

The Meiyintang
A 15th century, Ming Dynasty "Chicken Cup" valued at HK$200 million ($26 million) to HK$300 million for sale at Sotheby's Hong Kong auction on April 8. Source: Sotheby's Hong Kong

A 15th-century ceramic cup from the Ming Dynasty will be included in a Sotheby’s auction next month in Hong Kong, after the seller retracted an earlier decision to pull the sale.

The cup, valued at HK$200 million ($26 million) to HK$300 million, will be offered at Sotheby’s on April 8, according to Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and International Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art.

The seller, a Swiss collector in his nineties who had earlier asked to pull the cup from the sale, changed his mind, said Giuseppe Eskenazi, who originally sold the piece to the collector in 2000 and is advising the seller.

The cup was promoted in a March 6 press release by Sotheby’s as a “potential record breaker” and is considered the finest piece of Chinese ceramics in private hands. It comes from the Meiyintang Collection, whose owner has vacillated over selling it, said Eskenazi, a London-based dealer who originally sold the piece to him in 2000.

“It’s such a great treasure, he didn’t want to part with it as he treasured it so much,” Eskenazi, who helped the seller place pieces with Sotheby’s before, said by telephone today. “But finally, he agreed a few hours ago to go ahead.”

Emperor Allegory

Eskenazi, who bought the cup for almost HK$30 million in 1999, sold it one year later to its present owner.

“This is the most valuable piece of porcelain in any private collection,” he said.

The cup, made for the Chenghua emperor (1465-1487) is considered the most rare of Chinese ceramics and may set an auction record, according to the Sotheby’s press release. It has been nicknamed the “Chicken Cup” because it depicts a rooster, his hen and their chicks, an allegorical representation of the emperor, the empress and their subjects.

“We are very excited to present this in the sale,” Chow said by telephone. “It is the single most expensive, single most sought after Chinese porcelain ever offered at auction.”

The “Chicken Cup” is only 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) in diameter, delicate and dainty, said Edie Hu, senior specialist of Chinese ceramics and works of art at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The imagery is almost cartoon-like compared with some of the more sophisticated ceramic works of the period, Hu said.

“It’s kind of intimate and personal,” Hu said. “Many things made for the emperor he probably didn’t use. I think this cup is something he actually cherished.”

Sotheby’s set an auction record for the most expensive Chinese work of art in October when Chinese property developer Zheng Huaxing paid $30.5 million for a bronze Buddha in Hong Kong, Hu said.

London-based auction house Bainbridges achieved a record hammer price plus buyers fees of 51.6 million pounds ($86 million) for a Qianlong era vase in 2010, though the buyer reneged and the vase was later sold privately for less than half that.

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