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Collector Gets 422 Million AmEx Points With Cup Purchase

Handover of the Chicken Cup
Chinese buyer Liu Yiqian and Sotheby's Asia Deputy Chairman Nicolas Chow hold the "Chicken Cup" Liu bought for $36 million. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg.

A Chinese collector who bought an ancient Chinese ceramic cup for a record HK$281 million (US$36 million) at auction in April got an unexpected bonus when he paid for it today: almost 422 million American Express points.

Liu Yiqian, who used his Centurion Card to pay for the cup from Sotheby’s Hong Kong, hadn’t even thought about the rewards until he was contacted by Bloomberg News.

“He didn’t even know,” his daughter Betty said by telephone, as her father doesn’t speak English. “He is checking now to find out about how many points he can get.”

Liu’s daughter said he used his credit card, which is denominated in yuan, because currency restrictions won’t allow him to transfer that much money directly from China to Hong Kong. Individuals are limited to moving $50,000 per year outside the country because of capital controls.

So what can 421,860,000 AmEx points get? According to the American Express Co.’s website, they can be converted to more than 28 million frequent flyer miles or about $180,000 worth of vouchers at Hong Kong retailer ParknShop.

Liu, who drank Chinese tea from the cup shortly before he paid for it, had to sign 24 separate AmEx receipts because the system can only swipe transactions of up to HK$12 million at a time, said Nicolas Chow, head of Chinese ceramics and works of art and deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia.

Payment, Handover

Chow said Liu, who plans to place the cup in his private museum in Shanghai, agreed to invite the media for the payment and handover of the cup in order to show that a Chinese collector who bid a record at auction pays his bills.

“There have been lots of transactions in China for large amounts that never come into fruition,” Chow said. “With that knowledge he wanted to show it’s a real transaction and he’s paying.”

Liu, whom Chow describes as the most important Chinese collector, said his Long Museum is a “great landmark and a must-see destination” that has attracted visitors including actress Angelina Jolie.

The cup, from the Chenghua era (1465-1487), is nicknamed the “Chicken Cup” for its depiction of a rooster, his hen and their chicks, an allegorical representation of the emperor, empress and his subjects.

Many Fakes

Chow said it is “one of the most faked and most revered pieces of porcelain in China,” with tens of thousands of replicas around.

American Express collects an average of about 2.5 percent from retailers on each credit-card transaction and generated $18.7 billion of so-called discount revenue in 2013, according to a regulatory filing. The New York-based company spent $6.46 billion last year on card member rewards, the filing shows.

Because of privacy considerations, AmEx declined to say whether Liu’s is the biggest purchase on an AmEx card.

“We see a huge range in redemptions using Membership Rewards points -- everything from engagement rings to fine art and, of course, for travel all over the world,” said Kimberly Litt, an AmEx spokeswoman. “We also see our card members using their points more frequently for smaller, everyday items -- a cup of coffee, a taxi ride or a manicure -- something that’s a small luxury.”

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