Public opinion does not favor the rich person who acts it. First there was Marie Antoinette, purportedly prescribing cake. Now there's Liu Yiqian, a Shanghai businessman who recently shattered records by buying a tiny porcelain cup with poultry painted on it for $36.3 million.
The problems started for Liu when he went to Sotheby's to pay for the Ming-dynasty treasure (which he reportedly purchased by swiping his American Express card 24 times). In a celebratory mood, he proceeded to sip tea from his new cup. Presumably, the celebration was meant to be private, but hey -- welcome to the Internet. A photograph of Liu mid-sip has gone viral, making him the latest symbol of excess in China.
The $36.3 million "chicken cup."
Chinese online critics see Liu as one in a line of self-inflated millionaires. “You think you can drink [out of the cup] and become immortal?" wrote one Weibo user, according to The Wall Street Journal. "In fact, isn’t it just a way to satisfy your vanity?”
Wrote another: "No people who are civilized would treat a cultural treasure like this. No wonder Chinese people are looked down on by other countries’ citizens.”
Valued at just more than $921 million, Liu is the country's 200th richest citizen. Above him, practically every one is a billionaire -- which is a lot of billionaires (only the U.S. has more). These are the folks driving up rates in the Chinese art market. They're also setting a national tone of excess, as seen in headline-making extravagances such as the "money bouquet" that recently did internet rounds, after someone placed the Kimye-esque order with a Yangzhou florist.
At the upper levels of wealth, you find indulgences like Liu's. For such a small thing -- just 3.1 inches in diameter -- his cup holds an important place in the Chinese consciousness. There are only 17 like it in the world. A Sotheby's agent, describing the so-called "chicken cups" to The Daily Mail, called them the "holy grail when it comes to Chinese art. Every time [one] comes up on the market, it totally redefines prices in the field."
The cups' status partly explains why Liu's countrymen and women would take issue with the obvious pleasure he gets from having intimate access to one. Owning a piece of dynastic history links a buyer directly to the "greatness of the past," as The Art Market Monitor points out, the kind of hubristic exchange probably best enjoyed behind closed doors.
Liu told the WSJ as much today, placing his sip in a pretty heady timeline. “Emperor Qianlong has used [the cup]. Now I've used it. I just wanted to see how it felt...Such a simple thing -- what’s so crazy about that?”