For decades it was kept in a shoebox in an attic along with dozens of other antiques passed down through generations of a family in France.
It had been left to the present owners' grandparents by an uncle and no one in the family particularly liked it.
On Tuesday, the 18th Century Qing Dynasty vase sold at a Paris auction for €16.2 million — more than 20 times its estimate and the highest price reached for a single item sold by Sotheby's in France.
Sotheby's Asian art expert Olivier Valmier was stunned when it was shown to him.
"This person took the train, the suburban lines, the metro, and then came here on foot and pushed through the doors of Sotheby's until they reached my office and the vase was in a shoe box protected with newspaper. And when they put the box on my desk and we opened it, we were all stunned by the beauty of the piece.''
The vase, which was made for an emperor of the Qing dynasty, has different animals in the landscape painted on it and is embroidered with gold around the neck.
A Sotheby’s spokesman said the family knew it was valuable but not to the extent it sold, nor that it was part of the Qing dynasty.
The auction lasted 20 minutes, which is a long time for that kind of sale, as multiple bidders fought for the ornament.
The vase bears a mark of the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China from 1736 to 1796.
The buyer is believed to be a young Chinese collector but has not been identified.