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Yard-Sale Bowl Revealed As Rare Chinese Artifact Auctioned Off For $721,800

A small porcelain bowl, pictured in a photo provided by Sotheby's, sold for $35 at a yard sale but was later identified as a rare, 15th-century Chinese artifact.
Sotheby's via AP
A small porcelain bowl, pictured in a photo provided by Sotheby's, sold for $35 at a yard sale but was later identified as a rare, 15th-century Chinese artifact.

Updated March 17, 2021 at 3:34 PM ET

A small porcelain bowl that cost $35 at a yard sale and turned out to be a rare, 15th-century Chinese artifact has sold at a Sotheby's auction for $721,800 — more than 20,000 times its original asking price.

An unidentified Connecticut man bought the bowl from a yard sale near New Haven last year, and later emailed photos to Sotheby's seeking an evaluation. Appraisers determined it dates back to the Ming dynasty of the early 1400's, and estimated its worth at between $300,000 and $500,000.

It fetched a much higher price as part of Sotheby's Important Chinese Art auction in New York on Wednesday. Sotheby's said the bowl was "one of the major stars" of the sale, and it set off a four-way bidding battle.

"It's always quite astounding to think that it kind of still happens, that these treasures can be discovered," said Angela McAteer, Sotheby's senior vice president and head of its Chinese Works of Art Department. "It's always really exciting for us as specialists when something we didn't even know existed here appears seemingly out of nowhere."

Of the six other bowls of this kind known to exist, McAteer said, most are in museums and none is in the United States. Two are at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan, two are at museums in London and one is in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran, according to Sotheby's.

The cobalt blue-painted bowl is small — about 6 inches in diameter — and shaped like a lotus bud or chicken heart, according to a writeup on the auction website. It's adorned with "blossoms of lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, and pomegranate flowers," with a medallion at the bottom and "bordered by a band of lotus scrolls around the rim."

McAteer said the bowl has "all the characteristics and hallmarks" of the early Ming period, noting its smoothness, silky glaze and distinctive color and designs.

Sotheby's experts date the bowl to the era of the Yongle Emperor, who reigned from 1403 to 1424, and ushered in a distinct new style of porcelain work that they described as "immediately recognizable, never surpassed, and defining the craft still in the eighteenth century."

"In every respect, this delicate bowl is a quintessential Yongle product, made for the court, showing the striking combination of superb material and painting with a slightly exotic design that characterizes imperial porcelain of this period," reads the catalog note.

And, even after all these years, Sotheby's says the artifact is in "overall very good condition." It notes just a shallow chip and minor warping on the rim, as well as some light wear and minor firing imperfections that are "all consistent with age and type."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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