$35 Bowl Bought in Yard Sale Turns Out To Be Rare Ming Dynasty Artifact Worth $500,000

Ming Dynasty Yongle Period Blue and White Floral Porcelain Bowl

Photo: Sotheby's

What is your best yard sale find? For an unnamed Connecticut man, an ordinary New Haven yard sale in 2019 produced the bargain of a lifetime. The man purchased a small blue and white porcelain bowl with floral motifs for just $35. Upon closer inspection, he suspected his purchase might be an antique. As it turns out, he had purchased a Ming dynasty porcelain bowl from the early 15th-century Yongle period. According to Sotheby's—which helped identify the bowl and will auction it off beginning March 17, 2021—the rare piece will likely sell for between $300,000 and $500,000.

To an untrained eye, the porcelain bowl may appear like a relatively modern product. However, by examining the quality of the porcelain, glaze, and floral motifs, experts were able to pinpoint its creation to the rule of the Yongle Emperor. This period from 1403 to 1424 is considered one of the finest periods of Chinese Imperial porcelain production. This small bowl (about six inches in diameter) was likely made for use in the courts of this Ming dynasty ruler. The brilliant blue designs were created during a period of experimentation in cobalt techniques with rigid quality control. Hence, the small “lotus bowl” (named for its shape) is an almost-unparalleled example of craftsmanship.

The floral designs on the bowl bear resemblance to motifs depicted in the Islamic Middle East. In cobalt, lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, and pomegranate blossoms surround the vessel. The porcelain of the Yongle period was traded throughout the world, reaching lands in the Middle East and East Africa. However, according to experts at Sotheby's, it would have been rare to find such a small piece outside of China, as mostly larger pieces were sent abroad. Despite the broad reach of trade routes, Chinese porcelain was a rare luxury in Europe. The first piece is though to have arrived in the 14th century. It would not be until the 18th century that European manufacturers managed to create their own porcelain vessels.

Known for its beauty and durability, porcelain vessels are still prized today. It is unknown how the Ming dynasty lotus bowl came to be at a Connecticut yard sale. Provenance—knowing where an object came from and how it passed from hand to hand—is valued in the art world for both scholarly and ethical reasons. However, this bowl has presented a mystery. Only six companion bowls have been identified, mostly held in prestigious museum collections. Should you hope to stumble upon historic finds at your local yard sale, Sotheby's head of the Chinese art department, Angela McAteer, recommends (for porcelain), “Look for an equilibrium and balance in the design… and assess the quality and the workmanship that has gone into it.”

This particular bowl will be included in an upcoming auction by Sotheby's on March 17, 2021 alongside other stunning Asian art.

An unnamed man purchased a porcelain bowl for $35 at a yard sale in Connecticut.

Ming Dynasty Yongle Period Blue and White Floral Porcelain Bowl

Photo: Sotheby's

It turned out to be a Ming dynasty bowl from the 15th-century Yongle period. It will be auctioned at Sotheby's and is expected to go for between $300,000 and $500,000.


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h/t: [CNN, Martha Stewart]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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