Skip to main content

How to hunt for your own $2.2 million Ding bowl

By Nicholas Dawes, Special to CNN
updated 2:09 PM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicholas Dawes: Ding bowl that fetched $2.2 million is the latest in big deals on Chinese art
  • Yard sale fans' hopes rekindled, he says, but dreams elusive (see "Antiques Roadshow")
  • He says key to value is supply and demand, but calculation varies so keep trying
  • Dawes: Chinese art value growing, especially in China, as society and art market open up

Editor's note: Nicholas Dawes has appeared frequently as an appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow" since the PBS program began in the United States in 1996. He is the vice president of special collections for Heritage Auctions in New York and a former Sotheby's auctioneer. He is the author of three standard works on decorative arts and contributes regularly to publications on antiques and their value.

(CNN) -- Auctions are like sporting events; pundits and punters predict the outcome but never really know what will happen. Triumphs and record breakers tend to make art press headlines, while upsets are quickly swept under the nearest Oriental rug.

The performance this week of a Chinese Ding bowl, bought for $3 at a yard sale and sold at auction in New York for $2.2 million, is the latest result in a string of successes for "undiscovered" Chinese porcelain at auction. It began in earnest in the 1970s and reached a climax on November 13, 2010, when a porcelain vase from the reign of 18th-century emperor Qianlong took a staggering 53 million pounds from a Chinese bidder in a tiny suburban London salesroom, the kind where bidders sit on sofas and chairs that are part of the estate auction.

Nicholas Dawes
Nicholas Dawes

Both pieces sat unidentified, and unappreciated, for generations, rekindling the flame of hope that burns dimly inside all antiques enthusiasts, whether or not they care to admit it. Flea-marketeers and yard-salers openly acknowledge they live in a world of false hope, spending countless hours, like fishermen who catch nothing but the smallest fry, or nothing at all in most outings. Most hopes that live on are commonly dashed by the first encounter with a professional. The floor of an "Antiques Roadshow " taping set is littered with broken dreams -- and sometimes broken porcelain in emphasis.

I do not believe anyone has ever statistically plotted the chances of turning up a valuable object at a yard sale opportunity, but expect such a number would be too small to register on any scale. Before any attempt to uncover a dream, it pays to think strategically about what it is you are looking for. Like finding the perfect partner, this may involve a process of elimination but depends largely on common sense and good powers of observation.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The essential ingredient in determining value of an art object is no secret: supply and demand. I suggest those on the way to an early-morning yard sale repeat this over and over in the van. Rarity may therefore be a positive factor, but if something is rare, or perhaps unique, and no one wants it (your grandfather's homemade table lamp perhaps?), it has no value.

On the other hand, an object may be plentiful, even mass-produced, but have even greater demand and therefore value. Some years ago I sold a Lalique perfume bottle at auction for a little more than $200,000. Its owner had purchased the bottle at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1937 (where it was marked down 50% on sale) for $25. There were plenty more waiting to be sold at the time.

JFK portrait hidden behind $5 painting
Lifting spirits in China through art
See how thieves stole $500 million in art

Quality is sometimes but not always a factor in value. Most baseball cards are extremely inexpensively made, and mass-produced, making all cards from any given series fundamentally the same, except of course for the subject. Most cards, even those a century old, are worth a few dollars at best, and a pitiful percentage rise into the hundreds individually, but a few are valued into six or even seven figures. The economics of supply and demand work powerfully when applied to the subtleties of collecting a set.

It is not coincidental that most remarkable numbers lately have been put up by Chinese objects. The year 2010, in which China overtook Europe to become the second-largest art market after the United States, has been described as an annus mirabilis for Chinese art collecting as wealthy Chinese from all levels of the new society chose art and objects as tangible assets, suitable for investment, trading and bragging rights beyond simple display. The demand is as large as the Chinese population and economy, and supply of exquisite objects limited, thanks to most being in Western museums or private collections.

A fundamental awareness of Chinese porcelain may be a big help in your hopes of finding the same success as the owner of the Ding bowl, but serious knowledge is an area of immense expertise shared by an elite few and respected by the trade above all other areas of understanding.

If you rely on luck, however, Chinese porcelain is a fairly good bet. The Ding bowl looks quite ordinary to most of us. It is monochrome, with an extremely subtle pattern, and does not have a mark translating as "valuable Ding bowl" stamped on the bottom, making it look like a bowl found in Pottery Barn (and more commonly found at yard sales). Good luck in your search. The only other comparable example is in the British Museum.

Perhaps a hidden treasure may be closer than you think. Heritage Auctions offers an example of the insanely rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel in April. The last one we offered sold for $3.73 million. It looks pretty much like any other nickel to most of us, and there may have been others in circulation. Check your pockets.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicholas Dawes.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT