HONG KONG -- A Shanghai collector bought a rare Ming Dynasty cup that's touted as the "holy grail" of China's art world for $36 million at a Hong Kong auction on Tuesday, smashing the previous world record price for Chinese porcelain.
Sotheby's said Liu Yiqian was the winning bidder for the small white cup, which measures just 8 centimeters (3.1 Inches) in diameter and is more than 500 years old. 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 Ming Dynasty's Chenghua Emperor, 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.
"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."
For such a prized item, bidding was limited to a handful of wealthy collectors and when the winning bid was hammered down at HK$250 million ($32.2 million), the standing-room only crowd broke into applause. The auction house's commission brought the total to HK$281.2 million ($36.1 million). A pre-sale estimate had estimated a maximum sale price of HK$300 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.
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. At Sunday's sale of modern and contemporary Asian art, Asian collectors bought nine of the top 10 priciest lots.
"Definitely the mood in Hong Kong at this moment, in Asia, is buoyant," said Chow.
Chow said the cup would likely go on display in Liu's Long Museum in Shanghai, which he and his wife, Wang Wei, opened in 2012.
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.