Top Price for 0,02% of the Largest Encyclopedia Prior to Wikipedia

An estimate price of 5000 euros and a hammer price of 6.4 million euros – that’s something you don’t see every day. Yet this was the result two Chinese volumes realized in the Art of Asia Sale by Beaussant Lefèvre at the Drouot auction centre in Paris on July 7th.

Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty and commissioner of the encyclopedia.

The Knowledge of the World

These two volumes belonged to a copy of the Yongle Dadian. This encyclopedia was commissioned by the 3rd emperor of the Ming dynasty, Yongle emperor. It was supposed to contain every piece of knowledge and written works known at that time; for example from history and geography as well as philosophical works and teachings of Confucianism. Between 1403 and 1408, over 2,000 scholars worked on this monumental opus.

The final product consisted of 11,095 volumes, 22,877 chapters and 370 million Chinese characters – according to Wikipedia, the equivalent of about a quarter of a billion English words and therefore around six times as many as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The index alone spanned 63 volumes!

Under the Yongle Emperor, China experienced a period of prosperity. During his rule, three of the great Chinese landmarks were build: the Forbidden City, the Porcelain Tower and the Temple of Heaven, which can be seen here. Image: Saad Akhtar / CC BY 2.0.

Of course, this encyclopedia just had a single copy, kept in the just finished Forbidden City. After a fire in the mid-16th century almost reached the building where the Yongle Dadian was kept, Emperor Jiajing ordered two copies to be made – this is when the two volumes now auctioned were created.

Lost Knowledge

The two volumes sold at Beaussant Lefèvre for an astonishing price. Credit: Beaussant Lefèvre

The course of time and history was not favorable to the Yongle Dadian: Over time and for reasons unknown, almost all volumes of the original went missing.

The two later copies survived longer, but during the 19th century European interventions in China, these volumes as well were almost all destroyed or scattered around the world. Today, only 400 volumes of all three copies are still known to exist, which is only 3.5% of the total encyclopedia. About half of these volumes are located in China.

The two volumes now sold were unknown until today and are non-consecutive. One volume consists of chapters 2268 and 2269 and is about lakes in China; the other volume includes chapters 7391 and 7391 describing funeral customs. According to media coverage, the auction house was expecting a big interest for the volumes, but 1200-fold the estimate price was surely a surprise for them. If you include the buyers fee, the total price even climbs to over 8 million euros. The buyer is believed to be a private person.


Other Things You Might Be Interested In

Here you can find the website of Beaussant-Lefevre.

The British Museum own three of the known volumes. In this short video, British Museum curator Jessica Harrison-Hall talks about the importance of the Yongle Dadian.