It’s all over the news: a man spent $35 for a pretty blue-and-white porcelain bowl at a yard sale somewhere near New Haven, Connecticut. It was a small thing, about six inches across, with a design of flowers and vines. The buyer didn’t even haggle about the price. had a feeling and didn’t haggle about the price (Maybe $35 is normal for New Haven, home of Yale University, but as one of the anchors on Channel 4 said, “It’s cute, but it looks like something you’d pay four bucks, maximum.” I agree.
It turns out however that this lotus bowl (named for its lotus flower-like shape) is fabulously old and rare. It’s a Ming Dynasty piece from the early 1400s, and there are only seven similar bowls surviving in the world today, most of them in museums, and it just sold at Sotheby’s for $721,800. !!
The other Channel 4 anchor said, “I love and hate this story. I love it because it happens, and I hate it because it never happens to me.” I agree. On consideration, though, how could I know it’s never happened to me? When I go to a yard sale or flea market I’m not searching for treasure to resell; I’m looking for something to use or to enjoy looking at on the daily. Never has calling Sotheby’s occurred to me. Therefore: there’s at least a tiny possibility that I have acquired a rare treasure. Certainly I have a lot of stuff stamped “Made in China”…
When we first set up house together, Dave and I got a lot of our furniture, crockery, and the occasional decorative tchotchke from a secondhand collective nearby. This was a big indoor space, four floors, divided into lots of little booths. I loved going there so much. We paid 50 cents each to get in, and when we wanted a break from shopping we visited the canteen at the back that sold soda, donuts, popcorn, and coffee.
I prefer the venues where there are a lot of vendors: flea markets, antiques collectives, and art fairs. All that stuff makes it feel like a museum (I luurve museums) where you can take home a piece from your favorite exhibit. So much eye candy. My favorites, the pictures, glass art, ceramics, the old books, draw me like a magnet.
I’m less likely to stop at a typical yard sale, where it’s just one family with their stuff laid out all over the front yard. Partly that’s because the merchandise tends more towards clothes, toys, furniture, and small appliances. Also, my autism makes it hard to navigate the social intricacies of a situation where it feels as if “just looking” is not okay, that good manners requires buying something, anything.
At that New Haven yard sale, I believe I’d have noticed the Ming bowl, even if it had been stuck between a set of He-Man action figures and some hand-embroidered kitchen towels. I’d have checked it out, then walked away, thinking $35 for that? I understand that haggling is expected and not considered offensive, but I.just.can’t. It feels like attempted robbery. For $4 I’d have snapped it up.
Or maybe not. We already have a lotus bowl, found at a Saturday flea market one town over. Our lotus bowl is about the same size as the Sotheby’s one. A decent size for serving nuts or candy. Like the Ming, its dominant colors are also blue and white. The Sotheby’s design is a bit busier than our bowl’s, but ours has a grander (maybe gaudier) color scheme, with details in orange, gold, crimson, and green. There’s a lovely, somewhat perplexing scene on the outside of the bowl: houses along a river, mountains in the distance, maybe a skyscraper, too?, flowering tree branches stretched over the water, and a group of five things floating on or above or maybe in the river. Dave and I can’t agree whether they’re lotus flowers, goldfish, or birds. Also there are two guys fishing in a boat. Inside the bowl, at the center, is a lotus flower plus leaves that looks more like a creepy monster hand with a big ring, reaching for that last cashew. That you took, and now you are subject to its terrible revenge, bwah hah hah!
Maybe every time I wash my lotus bowl I’m degrading its market value by another $1,000. I daydream briefly of a serendipitous visitor, maybe someone who comes to check the electric meter because he hasn’t yet found a position that uses his PhD in Chinese art history, who tells me that our bowl is fabulously valuable. As Dave noted this morning, “you can buy a lot of bowls with $721,000.” Then I snap back to reality and the $7 that I found in my fall coat pocket. When the flea markets and art fairs and yard sales start back up, I’ll go looking. There’s always room for one more beautiful thing.