The $35 Ming Dynasty Porcelain Bowl From Connecticut

Ming Dynasty Porcelain Bowl

Proof that precious things are in plain sight just waiting for collectors to find them is the recent story of the fabulous garage sale find of a Ming Dynasty porcelain lotus bud bowl.

The lucky owner who found this precious bowl at a yard sale near New Haven in Connecticut, picked it up for only $35. The same bowl sold at Sotheby’s months later for more than $720,000 (including buyer’s premium).

The owner knew he was onto a good thing the moment he set eyes on the bowl, so he sent photos of it to Sotheby’s to confirm his suspicions. The response was incredible and extraordinary news. This was not only a Ming Dynasty bowl but one of exceptional rarity. Only six other bowls like it survive today, with some on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Yongle Period Porcelain

The 6 ¼-inch bowl is from the Yongle period, dating between 1402-1424. This was a time of great innovation in the art of porcelain. Under the reign of the Yongle Emperor, the fourth son of the founder of the Ming Dynasty, the porcelain kilns of Jingdezhen (the capital of the porcelain trade) were rebuilt to reflect a distinct style and finish.

According to Sotheby's Chinese art expert, Angela McAteer, the Yongle Court turned a utilitarian bowl into a work of art by using innovative techniques, never again replicated by any other dynasty. Porcelain produced after this period was more mass produced with little attention to smoothing out imperfections and defects.

The emperor dedicated a lot of time to porcelain and elevated the Ming reputation and the royal kilns’ status to a place of great renown. No one else in the world could produce porcelain of this quality. He introduced an unctuous silky glaze to a perfectly smooth porcelain body and a proprietary formula for the vibrant blue cobalt colouring. All of these hallmarks can be seen in the yard sale porcelain bowl.

Blue underglaze is a distinctive feature of Yongle porcelain. The type of blue pigment used was called Mohammedan blue (or huihui qing) after its Middle Eastern source, where it was imported. This particular dye comes from the Kashān district of Persia.

An exceptional and rare blue and white 'floral' bowl
Estimate: $300,000-$500,000
Sold: $721,800

The bowl is delicately potted in a classic Chinese lotus bud shape (or lianzi), hence its name, with deep rounded sides and a pointed base resting on a short, narrow foot. It is finely painted in rich tones of cobalt blue accented with characteristic 'heaping and piling'. This is a technique used in the Yongle period of saturating an area with so much pigment it bleeds through the underglaze.

With a medallion at its centre, the pattern is enclosed by a formalized quatrefoil motif that is encircled by a narrow band of alternating stylized florets made of dots and leaves.This is wreathed by elaborate interlocking strapwork, forming heart-shaped petals and a trefoil pattern. The trefoil motif is significant as it shows another Middle Eastern influence, this time of early Khorasan metalwork.

Symbolism in Ming Dynasty Pottery

The exterior is painted with four blossoms of lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, and pomegranate flowers, alternating with four emblems of zabao (miscellaneous treasures) including the ingot, double horns, coral branch, and yinyang castanets. All of these features carry deep symbolic meaning:

  • Lotus flower for purity and long life
  • Peony for wealth and power
  • Chrysanthemum for health and longevity
  • Pomegranate flowers for prosperity and fertility
  • Ingot for good luck
  • Double horns (one of the eight treasures) for success and prosperity
  • Coral branch for wisdom and happiness
  • Castanets for good luck and good fortune

Other than these distinctive features, very little is known about the provenance of this Yongle bowl and how it came to be at a yard sale in Connecticut. But it is of historical relevance nonetheless. The floral Ming porcelain bowl was featured in Sotheby’s Asia Week auction in New York and sold for $721,800.

According to Sotheby’s expert Angela McAteer this "result for this exceptionally rare floral bowl, dating to the 15th century, epitomizes the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime discovery stories that we dream about as specialists in the Chinese Art field... it is a reminder that precious works of art remain hidden in plain sight just waiting to be found."

A finely painted blue and white lobed 'fruit and flower' bowl, Xuande period
Estimate: $300,00-$500,00
Sold: $315,000

In the same sale but from a later period was another rare example of Ming porcelain, a finely painted blue and white lobed 'fruit and flower' bowl from the Xuande period (1426-1435). If you compare the two bowls, you can immediately see the difference in style, design and technique. The Xuande bowl shows a much more open design, whereas the Yongle bowl is more intricate and detailed. Even the pigment is richer and darker in the Yongle bowl.

In both these pieces, you see the fruit and floral motif that is common among Chinese porcelain and ripe with spiritual and symbolic meaning. At the centre of the Xuande bowl is a peach tree, the Chinese tree of life. Each bowl shows expert craftsmanship and the perfect balance between weight, symmetry and strength.

It is said that porcelain production reached its peak of perfection during the Xuande period. The emperor had a preference for blue and white pottery and these became famous for their jade-like glaze and simple designs. During this time the imperial kilns were expanded and a huge number of kilns were built to accommodate an ever-growing market in porcelain, producing some 443,500 pieces in just one year.

This particular Xuande fruit and flower bowl sold for $315,000 at Sotheby’s.

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