Why a Chinese cup sold for £21.5m this week

H&A talks to Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp about the estimate-busting Chinese chicken cup sold at Sotheby's

H&A talks to Antiques Roadshow expert Lars Tharp about the estimate-busting Chinese chicken cup sold at Sotheby's

On Tuesday (8th April) a tiny piece of Chinese porcelain measuring 8.2cm across sold for a whopping £21.5m. The cup dates from the 15th century when a technique called 'doucai', which roughly translates as 'contrasting colours', was coming to prominence in China. 

'Doucai is the process of painting cobalt blue directly on to the porcelain before glazing and then firing the piece at a high temperature,' explains Oriental art expert Lars Tharp

'When the piece came out of the kiln it would be taken to the enamelling workshops and colours that couldn't take such a high heat would be added before it was fired again at lower temperature.'

Pieces of 15th-century doucai are very rare though many copies ('Worringly good ones,' says Lars) exist. 

The price fetched by the cup that sold on Tuesday is a marker of the growth of the Chinese art and antiques market. When working at the Sotheby's Oriental department in the 1980s, Lars was part of the team to catalogue and sell the collection of Edward T Chow, which Lars describes as 'arguably the finest collection of Chinese porcelain that has come on the market since the war.' Part of the collection was, to the untrained eye, a similar cup that sold for 4.8m HKD (the equivalent of about £390,000 today).

'There are two reasons I think,' says Lars. 'One is supply and demand: these cups are incredibly rare - there are possibly only around 14 known from this date. The other is the huge increase in the number of people interested and able to buy luxury goods like this. There are many more Chinese multi-billionaires and, if you're earning £10m a day, £20m is pocket money.'

These cups are so rare that they have become the stuff of fiction, even cropping up in thrillers such as Nicole Mones' 2002 novel Cup of Light

With its fun design of a rooster and chicken tending their eggs (see the panorama of the cup below), it's no surprise that it's a covetable piece. Luckily, if you can't afford the multi-million dollar price tag, copies are readily available in Jingdezhen, the city where the doucai technique originated. Though, warns Lars, it might not be long before even the price of these copies goes up. 'Until recently you could pick up a pretty good copy for £50,' he says. 'I suspect now this sale has gone through, the Chinese will want to cash in on the success.'

In the meantime, Lars has his expert eye out for the real deal. 'I'm waiting for the day when one appears on the Antiques Roadshow. Fingers crossed they will start flooding in!'





Lars writes our Instant Expert feature on cloisonné enamelling in the July issue (out 5th June). See the Antiques Roadshow team in action at Cirencester Royal Agricultural College this Sunday (13th April) on BBC One at 8pm.

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