How Tan Swie Hian's artwork fetched $4.4 million

Industry players say Tan Swie Hian's work speaks to Chinese collectors

Tan Swie Hian. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Tan Swie Hian. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Tan Swie Hian created this Chinese ink-on-rice paper Portrait Of Bada Shanren (2013), and the calligraphic inscription, within one minute when he was in Beijing. -- PHOTO: POLY AUCTION
Tan Swie Hian created this Chinese ink-on-rice paper Portrait Of Bada Shanren (2013), and the calligraphic inscription, within one minute when he was in Beijing. -- PHOTO: POLY AUCTION

He is a scholar artist whose deep knowledge of Chinese philosophy and culture has enabled him to break into the closed circles of China's moneyed collectors.

This is how Singapore's Tan Swie Hian notched a 20.7 million yuan (S$4.4 million) sale at an auction in Beijing on Sunday night, for his portrait of a renowned monk painter of the early Qing dynasty, say art industry figures who are familiar with his work.

The hammer price paid for the ink-on-rice-paper work, Portrait Of Bada Shanren (2013), at the Poly Auction broke the artist's previous record for the most expensive work sold at an auction by a living Singapore or South-east Asian artist.

In 2012, his oil painting When The Moon Is Orbed (2012) sold at the same auction for $3.7 million. It is not known who the buyers of both of Tan's works are.

The 71-year-old artist, a Cultural Medallion recipient as well as a published Chinese-language poet and novelist, tells Life! he created the portrait of Bada Shanren (1626-1705) in a 60-second flash while in Beijing last September.

He says that when he was at an entrepreneur friend's studio one night, this "genius of Chinese art who is regarded as one of the most influential personalities and ink painters of his time just came to me". In that one minute, Tan also produced the calligraphic inscription surrounding the portrait.

Singaporean Ch'ng Poh Tiong, 59, a lawyer, wine writer and art collector, was present at both the 2012 and Sunday auction.

Mr Ch'ng says the bidding for Portrait Of Bada Shanren was "fast and furious", opening with a telephone bid. While he does not know who the work was eventually sold to, he says there were several intense moments in the room before the gavel signalled the sale at 20.7 million yuan.

Mr Ch'ng, who has a postgraduate certificate in Chinese Art from London's School of Oriental & African Studies, says: "Chinese art connoisseurs see Swie Hian as an artist in the great tradition of the ancient scholar literati, contemplative men who are steeped in philosophy and incredibly talented not just in painting but also calligraphy and poetry."

Chinese collectors have pushed the stock of art by their own countrymen globally and are generally known to support and buy mostly their own artists - both at home as well as international auctions.

For example, in April, contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang's politically charged masterpiece Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 (1995) sold for US$12.1 million (S$15.8 million) at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, setting a record price for the artist's work.

Tan has close links with China and is known to spend several weeks there each year.

This relationship goes back many years. In 2004, he was the only foreign artist invited to participate in an exhibition of China's top 25 xinxieyi (new freehand ink painting) artists held at the prestigious National Art Museum of China.

Mr Woon Tai Ho, who wrote a book in 2008 on Tan's oeuvre, has known the artist for over two decades.

He says: "Swie Hian's ink works, in particular, stem from his deep knowledge of Chinese history and culture, and this resonates well with Chinese collectors."

Mr Woon, 55, believes Tan's art is rooted in a lifelong Buddhist philosophy which ties in everyday things with the spiritual. Even when he creates his work, the artist is known to sometimes slip into a trance-like state, which explains the lightning speed at which some of his art is created.

Mr Guo Yuanchao, modern and contemporary art consultant at Poly Auction, says the fact that Tan's ink work sold at a higher price than his oil painting did in 2012 shows "the high recognition Chinese collectors accord to the Singapore master". Ink on paper is a traditional Chinese medium.

Art insiders here believe it is not easy to break into the Chinese art market.

Artist and gallerist Ho Sou Ping of Singapore's Artcommune gallery says: "I think his achievements in the philo- sophical realm have made his work appealing to some of the top Chinese collectors.

"He has received recognition from very established Chinese and international institutions. These, together with his art, I think, give Chinese collectors more confidence to place him in the league of some of their elite living artists."

Tan, a fluent French speaker, is also a member-correspondent of the Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France, among the oldest artistic institutions in the world. He is also the first living Singapore artist to have an entire museum here dedicated to him. In 1993, it was the late master artist from China, Wu Guanzhong, who opened The Tan Swie Hian Museum in Geylang. It is owned by Mr Tan Tien Chee, an antique dealer who admires the artist's work.

Mr Ho, 42, says: "This auction result shows that while Singapore may be a small country, our artists have it in them to make a mark internationally."