Two parts of a national treasure

On 16 July 2020, by Anne Doridou-Heim

Two albums created quite a stir, sparking a nearly 30-minute battle that ended with a result of €8,128,000.

China, 16th century, two albums from the Yongle Dadian (The Great Canon of the Yongle Period), black and red ink on paper, 50 x 30 cm each.
Result: €8,128,000

Two albums from the Yongle Dadian, also called The Great Canon of the Yongle Period, achieved the year’s highest bid at Drouot: €8,128,000. One of them is devoted to the geography of China’s lakes, the other to funerary rites. Admittedly, they do not look like much and their estimate was low, but they are considered national treasures in China. The Yongle Dadian was once the world’s largest encyclopaedia. Over 2,000 scholars toiling under the supervision of Emperor Yongle (1360-1424), the Ming dynasty’s third ruler, who commissioned the work, copied it between 1404 and 1408. The goal was to compile all the knowledge in the world, which makes the Yongle Dadian one of the first works of its kind. Spanning a wide range of subjects, from agriculture to the arts, religion, technology and astronomy, it originally included 22,877 handwritten volumes – enough to fill an estimated 40m3. The original was lost to wars, pillaging and fires during the Ming period. Thankfully, in 1562, near the end of his reign, Jiajing (1507-1567) ordered two copies made. Of those copies, just 400 volumes are known to still exist in the world: barely 4% of the original total. That explains the interest in these two albums – and their result.

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