With the country edging out of a recession, a newly elected Democratic president wrestling with a huge deficit, and art buyers seemingly sitting on their hands, the Palm Beach Post sent a reporter to John H. Surovek’s Worth Avenue gallery to ask him how he, and collectors in the well-invested but deeply illiquid town, were coping with what the Post’s eventual headline would call “market reality.” The year was 1993, and Surovek, who deals chiefly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art, was the wrong guy to ask. “During the previous year, we had set six American records,” Surovek recalls. One of those records was the $346,500 he had paid at Christie’s for a painting of a boy by Robert Henri—more than doubling the record price for a Henri. “This kind of art has held its own,” Surovek advised in 1993 when asked about a supposed slump. As for Palm Beach, Surovek told the Post reporter, “I have always believed I can sell a great painting in Paducah, Omaha, or Hammond, Indiana.”
Sixteen years later, both of Surovek’s claims still apply. The economic conditions are exponentially worse, and the toll taken by the Bernard Madoff scandal may have hit nowhere harder than in Palm Beach, where, since the scandal broke, the Post has run so many stories tracking Madoff’s movements that Bernie might be a hurricane that ripped through town. American art, nonetheless, is holding its own. Prices for the stars of the period from the beginning of the Civil War to the beginning of the Cold War—figures like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper—continue to rise. They have been bolstered by the recent emerging interest in lesser known artists.
“Despite its small niche in the global market American art continues its steady upward climb,” says Surovek’s son Clay, who joined his father in the gallery thirteen years ago. “Up until recently, you never had run-ups like you did with the impressionists or contemporary art.”
Handsome and tanned with a head of silver hair, John Surovek is the prototypical ebullient casual American. “If you see Dad in long pants, you can assume he’s been to a funeral,” Clay Surovek says. (His father even has his tuxedo pants altered to Bermuda shorts length.) Ten steps into the storefront in a piazza off Worth Avenue called Via Parigi, the gallery turns into a comfortable living room, with sofas and deep chairs amid agreeable clutter that inspires prospective buyers to wonder if their next treasure might be one of the paintings leaning against a wall.
Surovek’s owes his place in the American market to his patience in establishing the reputations of his artists. As a museum director in the early 1970s, he insisted on putting up a Norman Rockwell show even though he struggled to find museums that would participate, and he was one of the first gallery owners to champion Andrew Wyeth in the South in the mid-1970s. “Some years ago John had the opportunity to pick up a substantial portion of William Glackens’s estate,” says Dr. Louis Wright, a Charleston, South Carolina, collector and longtime Surovek client, “and he managed it exquisitely. He educated the rest of us, put out far-ranging catalogues and just systematically went about creating a market for Glackens.” When Surovek takes on an unknown living artist, as he has done with the Floridian Stephen Scott Young and the Maine artist John Whalley, both excellent draftsmen whom he describes as “nineteenth-century artists who happen to be alive today,” he goes about selling them the same way.
Surovek attributes his success to his love for the artists in his relatively small niche. Occasionally bigger fish—Renoirs and van Goghs—come his way as part of a large estate; under Clay’s purview, contemporary artists such as David Hockney and Robert Indiana have evolved into significant segments of the business. What is Surovek on the lookout for? “I would mortgage my house to get another Eakins, Hopper, or Rockwell,” he says.
His parochialism, he points out reasonably, is what has kept his trade solid. “Sixty percent of our American collectors know the value of paintings and are active in the market. We don’t feel the recession as badly because we aren’t as broad based,” he says, adding, “we’re not eating as well as we were last year, but we’re eating fine.”
Surovek knows the difference between living high and scraping by. His career in art began in Hammond, Indiana, a city of refineries and steel mills on the southern fringe of Chicago, when an art teacher at Hammond Technical-Vocational High School spotted him sketching outside class and asked him if he would like to take art as his shop class. At the end of his sophomore year, she submitted some of his paintings to a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later informed him that he had won a scholarship to take Saturday classes at the institute’s school. (He learned years later that there was no scholarship; the art teacher had footed his bills.) After graduation he took a job at Republic Steel in South Chicago, but after six weeks a foreman approached him and told him he was fired. When Surovek protested, the older man simply told him, “you don’t want to be doing this. You have thirty days to get to college.”
Launched like a character out of a Theodore Dreiser novel from the factory to the academy (he had chosen nearby Ball State University), Surovek uncharacteristically lost his focus. But he was rescued once again, this time by a formidable presence at the school named Alice Nichols, a beer-drinking, flattop-coiffed eminence who advised him to pull up his grades before the draft board caught wind of his 2.0 GPA. The year he graduated, 1968, he married, and during his honeymoon in Daytona Beach, decided to settle in Florida. By 1971 his painting career was foundering, but a talk he gave at the Daytona Beach Art League led to the directorship of the local Museum of Arts and Sciences. “The museum allowed me to do a lot of things I wanted to do—write about art, meet people from across the country, and organize exhibitions. The more I got into it, the more I fell in love with nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting,” he says.
The advice that he gave on painting acquisitions to the museum’s contributors regarding their personal collections showed him a way to spend time on what he loved. In 1976, as the Bicentennial celebration was fueling interest in all things American, he left the museum to start his own business.
Over the subsequent years the John H. Surovek Gallery hosted what amounted to a barbershop conversation about American art. During high season in Palm Beach, some of the top names in American collecting like the late Dr. John J. McDonough and Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz, whose paintings can be found today in major American museums, stopped in to kibitz. In a room so thick with passion for painting, according to one observer, “the art kind of sells itself.”
Around the survivors of that aging core of collectors a larger group of younger buyers has begun to emerge. Catalogues from the New York auction houses, like the one for Sotheby’s recent American sale, have shown surprising bullishness about second-tier artists of the period. “The demographics have changed,” Clay Surovek explains. “There’s a sense that you don’t have to wait until the kids are in college before you start your collection, that you don’t have to have the means the older generation started with. Collectors are coming from all walks of life. My father didn’t quite have that.”
No, but he gets his share of credit for creating the current situation in American art. And perhaps no one is better disposed than John Surovek to take advantage of it.
Images from above:
Spanish Dancer with Cigarette by Robert Henri (1865-1929), 1904. Signed “Robert Henri” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 70 by 50 inches. Photographs by courtesy of the John H. Surovek Gallery, Palm Beach.
Plains Indian Signaling Peace by N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), 1906. Signed and dated “n.c.wyeth/1906” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 40 by 30 inches.
Bareback Rider by Walt Kuhn (1880-1949), 1926. Signed and dated “Walt Kuhn/1926” at lower left and inscribed “Bareback Rider” on the stretcher. Oil on canvas, 40 by 30 inches.
A Day at the Seashore by Edward Potthast (1857-1927), 1912. Signed “E Potthast” at lower left. Oil on wood, 12 by 16 inches.