Chinese bowl bought for $35 in Connecticut could make half a million at Sotheby’s auction

A small floral bowl bought at a yard sale in Connecticut for just $35 has been identified as an exceptionally rare 15th-century Chinese antique.a close up of a glass bowl: Rare blue-and-white bowl from China's Ming dynasty to be auctioned at Sotheby's New York.© Courtesy Sotheby’s Rare blue-and-white bowl from China’s Ming dynasty to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York.

The intricate blue-and-white artifact, which features motifs of lotus, peony, chrysanthemum and pomegranate blossoms, was originally commissioned by China’s imperial court during the Ming dynasty. It is now expected to sell for up to $500,000, according to Sotheby’s auction house in New York, where the auction is due to take place next month.

The discovery was made last year near New Haven, Connecticut. While Sotheby’s is not disclosing the owner’s identity, the head of its Chinese art department, Angela McAteer, revealed in a phone interview that the man “didn’t haggle over the $35 asking price.” Shortly after making the purchase, he sent photographs of the bowl to auction specialists, who identified it as an item of historical significance. “We instinctively had a very, very good feeling about it,” McAteer said.

Upon closer inspection, the artifact was found to have originated from the court of the Yongle Emperor, who ruled from 1403 to 1424 a period noted for its distinctive and celebrated porcelain techniques. Known as a “lotus bowl,” due to its resemblance to a lotus bud, the item is now valued between $300,000 and $500,000, with the top estimate nearly 14,300 times the amount it was purchased for. “(The bowl had an) incredibly smooth porcelain body” and a “really unctuous silky glaze,” McAteer said, which she noted “was never replicated in future reigns or dynasties.” In addition to its vibrant cobalt blue coloring, she added, “it had all the hallmarks that one would expect of these great commissions of the Yongle period.”

During his reign, the Yongle Emperor transformed the porcelain craft, placing large orders for his court and exerting greater control over the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, China’s most important porcelain-making city. “The Yongle Emperor really promoted the artistic importance of porcelain,” McAteer said. “He elevated it from being a utilitarian bowl, for example, into a true work of art.” With a diameter of just over six inches, the small but detailed bowl would likely have had both artistic and practical value to the court. McAteer said, however, that very little is known about its provenance or how came to be at the yard sale. “It’s a frustrating mystery,” she said, adding that there is “scant documentation” from the period. Only six other similar bowls are known to have survived, according to Sotheby’s, with others housed by institutions including the National Palace Museum in Taipei, as well as the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Offering her advice to other porcelain bargain-hunters, McAteer said: “Look for an equilibrium and balance in the design… and assess the quality and the workmanship that has gone into it.” The find will be auctioned on March 17 as part of next month’s “Asia Week,” a series of Sotheby’s sales featuring artifacts, antiques and contemporary art from across the region. Other notable Chinese lots include an ornate silver bowl  from the Tang dynasty and an 18th-century jade brushpot, both of which carry a top estimate of $1.5 million.

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