A Ming-dynasty cup bearing a modest painting of poultry has proven to be the "holy grail" of Chinese porcelain, fetching a record HK$281.24 million at a Sotheby's auction.
Commonly known as a "chicken cup", its appeal lies in a traditional illustration of a rooster and hen tending to their chicks that has been replicated many times over since its creation more than 500 years ago.
The antique, measuring just 8cm in diameter, first set a world record for Chinese art 15 years ago. It was at the pinnacle of Chinese porcelain again yesterday, thanks to Liu Yiqian of Shanghai.
"This is perhaps the most duplicated [design] among all the porcelain ever produced throughout the history of China," Sotheby's Asia deputy chairman Nicholas Chow said.
"There are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of copies going around in China. There is no more legendary object in the history of Chinese porcelain. This is really the holy grail when it comes to Chinese art."
He pipped Giuseppe Eskenazi, a London-based oriental art dealer who made his final bid at HK$245 million.
Excluding paintings, the chicken cup is now the most expensive Chinese artwork in the world, with a value second only to the very best Chinese paintings, according to Chow.
Liu ranked 200th on Forbes' 2013 China Rich List with an estimated net worth of US$900 million. He and his wife, Wang Wei, are among the nation's most high-profile art collectors.
They founded the Long Museum in Pudong two years ago and opened a branch in West Bund just last month. Chow said the cup would probably go on display in one of them.
The cup was made in the reign of the Chenghua Emperor (1465-87) and the scene on it shows a cock and a hen with chicks in a garden. Sixteen chicken cups from that period still existed, Chow added.
The auctioneer said it was "small and unpretentious, and seem at first glance unassuming and modest, intended for individual appreciation and handling rather than for display".