The Meiyintang Chenghua 'chicken cup'.
The Meiyintang Chenghua 'chicken cup'. Photo: AFP

A rare Ming-era wine cup has broken the world auction record for any Chinese porcelain, selling in Hong Kong for $US36.05 million ($A39.02 million) to Shanghai tycoon Liu Yiqian, Sotheby's auction house says.

The tiny white porcelain cup, decorated with a colour painting of a rooster and a hen tending to their chicks, was made during the reign of the Chenghua Emperor between 1465 and 1487.

The price sets a new record for Chinese porcelain, according to Sotheby's, beating the previous record held by a gourd-shaped vase from the Qianlong period, which sold for $HK252.66 million ($A35.26 million) in 2010.

The price far exceeded the previous world record for Ming Dynasty porcelain - which was held by a blue and white vase that sold for $HK168.66 million in 2011.

Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Asia, described the cup as the "holy grail" of Chinese art.

"There is no more legendary object in the history of Chinese porcelain. This is an object bathed in mythology," he told reporters after the sale on Tuesday.

"It has gone to an extraordinarily good home in Shanghai in the collection of Liu Yiqian."

Bidding started at $HK160 million, with Liu putting up the winning bid over the telephone after a lengthy battle among hopeful buyers.

A taxi-driver turned financier, 50-year-old Liu is one of China's wealthiest people and among a new class of Chinese super-rich scouring the globe for artwork.

Worth an estimated $US1.6 billion and with two museums to his name, Liu made headlines in the art world when he bought a Song-era scroll for $US8.2 million at a Sotheby's auction in New York in September - only to have it dismissed as a fake by a trio of renowned experts. He stands by the scroll's authenticity.

AFP