HONG KONG (Reuters) - A rare wine cup fired in the imperial kilns of China's Ming dynasty more than 500 years ago sold on Tuesday for HK$281.2 million at a Sotheby's sale in Hong Kong, making it one of the most expensive Chinese cultural relics ever auctioned.
The tiny porcelain cup from the Chenghua period, dating from 1465 to 1487, is painted with cocks, hens and chicks, and known simply as a 'chicken cup'.
It is considered one of the most sought-after items in Chinese art, viewed with a reverence perhaps equivalent to that for the jeweled Faberge eggs of Tsarist Russia.
"Every time a chicken cup comes up on the market, it totally redefines prices in the field of Chinese art," said Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia, after the sale.
The last time a similar chicken cup was auctioned, in 1999, it fetched HK$29 million, around a tenth of Tuesday's price.
With just 16 known Chenghua chicken cups surviving to the present day, most in public museums, only a handful have ever come to auction. Only four of these remain in private hands.
Prized by Chinese emperors and aficionados through the centuries for their quality, rarity and legendary silky texture, Chenghua chicken cups fired in the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen are among the most prized, and forged, objects in Chinese art.
In a packed auction hall, bidding for the delicate, palm-sized cup began at HK$160 million and drew steady bids from three parties, before being eventually sold to major Chinese collector Liu Yiqian for a bid of HK$250 million.
The final price of HK$281.2 million, including fees, was a new world auction record for any Chinese porcelain, exceeding the $32.4 million paid for a Qing double-gourd vase in 2010.
The cup had come from the celebrated Western collection of Chinese ceramics, the 'Meiyintang', accumulated over half a century by Swiss pharmaceutical tycoons the Zuellig brothers.
With the purchase by Liu, a Shanghai-based billionaire with his own private 'Long Museum', the Meiyintang centerpiece is expected to become the only known genuine chicken cup in China.
Over the past decade, prices of Chinese art have soared with the country's economic boom, and while the market has moderated since 2011, demand for the highest quality Chinese art has remained undiminished.
National pride and the cachet of historical relics such as chicken cups have fuelled Chinese buying both on the world stage and at home, where a slew of auction houses have sprouted up to ride the market.
Still, some experts said China's slowing economy and credit squeeze may have sapped some market enthusiasm for the chicken cup, with the price falling just short of its high estimate.
"The price was OK, not so high, not so low," said Robert Chang, a leading collector based in Hong Kong.
"There were not as many bidders, which was kind of surprising," said Richard Littleton, a Western dealer at the sale. "Where is all this big Chinese money we were expecting to see?"
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)