There were gasps.There was shock.
There it was, lying in tatters - a piece of artwork valued at up to $4.4 million.
Singaporean artist Tan Swie Hian, whose previous works have sold for millions of dollars, tore up his calligraphy, February, at his long-time friend's book launch on July 28.
The artwork belonged to author Ch'ng Poh Tiong, 59, who had given Mr Tan, 72, permission to rip it up at the launch of My Friendship With Singapore's Great Painter, which is about Mr Tan's life and art.
Mr Guo Yuanchao, 65, Poly Auction's modern and contemporary art consultant, said: "February is valued at between $3.3 million and $4.4 million, the current market price in China for Mr Tan's artworks."
But Mr Tan told The New Paper that he does not place monetary value on any of his paintings.
"My concern is to pass down works of supreme quality. Da Vinci left behind only 15 pieces and Vermeer only 34," he said.
The multi-disciplinary artist, who works with various media, including bronze, ink and oil, said it was not unusual for him to destroy his works until he is satisfied with them.
"It is a regular occurrence in my studio," he said.
While painting Portrait Of Gandhi (1992), he destroyed 19 versions of it "before I got the work right".
Mr Tan added: "Each time I make a mistake on an artwork, I feel regret and I need to say sorry to the sheet of paper.
"I'm not making art for money. Buying and selling of my artwork will happen only after its creation."
Mr Tan created February in 1992. The calligraphy was a Chinese translation of Mr Ch'ng's English poem, February, which was written in 1972.
About 20 years ago, he gave the artwork to Mr Ch'ng as a gift.
Mr Tan decided to destroy his 1992 creation in March this year, after Mr Ch'ng showed him the book cover which features February alongside other paintings.
Mr Ch'ng said Mr Tan felt the painting would not stand the test of time when he saw the cover.
"He felt that his calligraphy now is better than in 1992 and he asked me for permission to do a new version," added Mr Ch'ng. This was on condition that the 1992 version would be destroyed.
Mr Ch'ng agreed because "not only was the original calligraphy a gift, but I also fully respect and admire his artistic integrity".
Nevertheless, he had mixed feelings about destroying the painting which had hung for years in his home's stairwell. He said: "I feel sad as it is like a family member who has left."
But the new February is like seeing a more glorious sunset, said Mr Ch'ng, who owns nine of Mr Tan's artworks.
On May 21, the artist handed the new February to Mr Ch'ng and was ready to destroy the old one at home.
But Mr Ch'ng suggested that Mr Tan do it in public.
"Though I was prepared for the tearing of the old February, it was still unbelievable. I've never seen something like that," Mr Ch'ng said.
Mr Guo, who was at the book launch at Sky On 57 at Marina Bay Sands, exclaimed in shock when the calligraphy was torn.
He told TNP: "I felt it was a pity because for China art collectors, as long as it's a master's work, it is precious because there are so few."
But he understands and accepts the artist's reasons. Mr Adnan Ahmad, 36, who designed the book cover, said: "I was quite amused because I know artists like to put on a big show." But he was shocked when he found out about the price of the painting.
He said: "I did not believe the price at first. It was a nice gesture from Poh Tiong to the artist."
The new February is on display at Sky On 57 till Aug 31.
Artists record-breaking works
He broke his own record set two years ago for the most expensive work sold at an auction by a living South-east Asian artist.
Last Nov 30, Singaporean artist Tan Swie Hian's ink-on-rice paper Portrait Of Bada Shanren (2013) sold for 20.7 million yuan (S$4.4 million) at the 2014 Poly Auction in Beijing.
In 2012, his oil painting When The Moon Is Orbed (2012) sold at the same auction for 18.975 million yuan.
It is not known who bought the two paintings.
The artist, a Cultural Medallion recipient, told The Straits Times last year: "It is certainly a rare honour to be recognised in China, which is emerging as the global art centre.
"My art has been embraced by collectors there, who continue to support me."
Mr Tan, who is married with two grown-up children, is known to spend several weeks in China every year.
He has produced poetry, novels and sculptures in addition to paintings and calligraphy.
In 2003, he became the first Singaporean to be conferred the prestigious World Economic Forum's Crystal Award, which celebrates the role of arts and culture in fostering global understanding.
This article was first published on August 6, 2015.
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