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A new world record for Chinese art?

A 15th century “chicken cup” is once again poised to shatter the record for a Chinese work of art at auction, 15 years after it achieved the then record price of $4m in 1999.

Following a string of increasingly high profile sales of Chinese art, a new figure of $32.4m was set for a Qing dynasty vase at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2010.

It seems almost a certainty that the cup will break the current record, due to the extraordinary regard with which it is held in Chinese culture.

The 15th century chicken cup

At first glance, the diminutive cup does not look much like a contender to become the most valuable anything, but like many of the most fascinating collectibles – there is more than meets the eye.

The story begins in the Chenghua period of the Ming dynasty (1464-1487), where the cups were produced in tiny quantites in the imperial kiln.

They were designed specifically for the appreciation of the emperor and as a result, the quality of the porcelain and the simple, elegant painting is unmatched.

Their delicate beauty fascinated subsequent generations, who saw in the cups an unmannered and unaffected aesthetic perfection.

Subsequent emperors and scholars sang their praises, resulting in a meteoric rise in value throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

They took on an almost legendary quality, becoming symbols of Chinese artisanship.

Poet and writer Zhu Yizun (1629-1709) wrote: “Chicken cups were not obtainable in the city for less than five pieces of white gold and those who did have the means to buy them greatly cherished them.”

Similarly another writer, Cheng Che, commented in the 17th century, “A pair of Chenghua cups was already worth 10,000 cash.”

Endless copies have been made throughout the ages to feed the public demand for these iconic wares and now, of the very few originals, only three survive.

Tom

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Unassuming Chinese owl unleashed on Asia Week

As the consignments start to roll in for the annual Asia Week New York (March 14-22), Sotheby’s has announced that the spectacular highlight of its sales will be…

An owl.

Unassuming at first, this owl will have you fascinated by its history

Unassuming at first, this owl will have you fascinated by its history

It’s a rather fine kind of an owl, cast from bronze and designed for use as a wine vessel. Yet, next to the glittering jewels and spectacular artworks offered during the week, it does look a little shabby…

$4m worth of shabby, apparently.

At first, you might dismiss the piece – it’s nice, but perhaps not the most coveted item on your list. However, dig a little deeper and this wise bird begins to reveal its secrets.

The key to the owl’s value is its age; this vessel was created during China’s Zhou dynasty. For those of us that aren’t well versed in ancient Chinese history, that’s the 8th-7th centuries BC.

Yes, that’s right…BC.

600-700 years before Jesus Christ was supposedly born.

To give that date some context, this was a time when the Assyrian Empire dominated Babylon and Egypt, while Nebuchadnezzar was busy building the famous Hanging Gardens.

Meanwhile, my forebears were presumably still mucking about in caves in England, making rudimentary weapons to destroy their enemies.

China was light years ahead, with the country under the grip of the longest dynasty in its history, while their political and culture was already developed enough to draw comparisons with medieval England.

Just some food for thought before you dismiss this unassuming owl…it’s amazing that the piece has even survived the tests of time, let alone made it to auction in fantastic condition.

Learn more about its fascinating provenance.

Joe

P.S. You can read all about Asia Week New York and the latest consignments over at Paul Fraser Collectibles’ news site – or sign up to the free newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out.

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