NEW YORK - A bowl bought at a yard sale last year by a savvy bargain hunter for $35 and that had been identified as an exceptionally rare 15th-century Chinese antique has sold at Sotheby's for $721,800.
The small, 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, according to Sotheby's auction house in New York, where the bowl was auctioned on March 17. The pre-sale estimate was $300,000-$500,000.
The bowl was discovered 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, said 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 bowl 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.
"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 said it has all the hallmarks expected of the 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 it ended up 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 bowl was auctioned as part of Sotheby's Asia Week, March 11-24, a series of sales featuring artifacts, antiques and contemporary art from across the region.