Fat cat

Reno man’s Dr. Seuss collection is no joke

Dr. Seuss art collector Tom Hovenic bonds with a roommate.

Dr. Seuss art collector Tom Hovenic bonds with a roommate.


He sure does like it in his house. He’d probably like it with a mouse. He likes it here. He likes it there. He likes his Seuss art everywhere.

“I’m actually buying pieces I don’t even like, because I just like having them all,” said Tom Hovenic, a Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel devotee who began his formidable collection back before the rest of the art world cared much. A $10,000 inheritance from his grandparents was meant for a down payment on his first house—something along those lines, anyway—but Hovenic, a strapped medical student at the time, spent it on an array of Dr. Seuss prints instead. He’s never looked back.

Years later, the effect in his home is at once whackadoo and tasteful, with early works from vintage magazines, darker fare full of playful vice, sketches teeming with social commentary—think ruthless caricatures of La Jolla, California socialites—and oddball animal busts looking down from the walls. A Goo-Goo-Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast lives in the formal dining room amid other creatures, and “Indistinct Cat with Cigar,” a print that looks much as it sounds, greets you in the foyer.

There are many more to see.

A prized serigraph in Hovenic’s home office, “Cat From the Wrong Side of the Tracks,” has the subject smoking and playing pool. He’s a tomcat, or maybe a Tom Waits cat, and if you peer closely enough you’ll see a buxom naked-lady kitty painted onto his necktie. Meow.

“It’s not so much The Cat in the Hat for me,” said Hovenic. “When I look at [Seuss’] books, that’s just what he did for a living.”

Hovenic’s mother, Ginger, reeled a bit when he told her how he’d spend his nest egg, but soon began to follow his hobby with great delight. She’s an elementary school principal turned administrator, after all, and has long been a Dr. Seuss fan anyway.

The rest of the family had to sign on, too, of course.

“When we were married, I told Whitney, ’You know this is part of the deal,’” Hovenic said of his wife, who aptly describes the hobby as expensive. “When I buy something, you can’t just say, ’Baloney.’”

A few years ago, he supposedly had the No.1 private collection in the country. He didn’t bring that factoid up on his own, however, and quickly added that his rank could’ve dropped by now. (It’s no longer an available statistic, at least at the moment.)

All told, though, competing with other fans isn’t the point. It’s more about geeking out and having fun.

“He was sarcastic,” Hovenic said of his inspiration. “He was funny, he was dirty, he was silly, and he was serious.” He failed many times, too, before The Cat in the Hat hit big.

And his work, at least his well-known stuff, “was the child in his mind,” said Hovenic, himself the father of two young daughters, Giuliana and Victoria. “His children were the world’s children.”

Oh, the places you’ll go

Unexpectedly enough, the artwork is also a stellar investment, and some folks learn that their once-$2,000 Seuss piece later goes for $20,000 to $30,000, said collection curator Bill Dreyer. The work was practically on clearance back in the 1990s, though, when Geisel’s widow, Audrey, began to introduce her late husband’s obscurities to buyers and galleries.

“We had it, and it was literally sitting around,” remembered Mike Dicken, national sales director at Chuck Jones Galleries. “When it was first released, everybody was kind of like, ’Really? Dr. Seuss?’” That’s when Hovenic bit.

A humbling note—Hovenic’s selection is “amazing,” said Dicken, whose sales repertoire includes works by Jones—the animator who collaborated with Seuss on How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—Charles Schulz and other heavy hitters, “but understand I have collectors who’ve spent millions upon millions of dollars with me, who make Tom’s collection look like he doesn’t even have one.”

Granted, Dicken said, Hovenic has almost all the “secret art” pieces—those are a thing, by the way—plus the taxidermy-style busts, magazine illustrations, political drawings and more.

“He has some pieces in his collection that people can’t even imagine exist,” he said.

Meanwhile, he talked about “Ted” as if he’d known him. He knows about his marriages, his life, his private motivations. And to be fair, the items he covets do feel like a peek into another person’s mind. They were always private, really, the therapeutic, doodly sort of art never meant to be shown or sold.

One of Hovenic’s dearest treasures hangs at the end of a short hallway. A stunning, one-off original bursting with abstractions and signature secondary colors, it’s not the painting itself that matters so much; it’s the fact that when you flip the frame around, you’ll see a hidden sketch and a distinct blue fingerprint. Ted’s fingerprint.

“To me,” he said, “that is just way amazing.”

’This other collection’

“The vast, vast majority of the public has no idea about this other collection,” Dreyer, now an old friend of Hovenic, said of the obscure works that are drawing an ongoing cult following.

“When people find out about it, it just shows them a side of Seuss they didn’t know. But you know what? You almost suspect it, so it’s just delightful when you find out.”

Dreyer has a haul of prankster stories, some not for public consumption, about the celebrated and sometimes introverted artist and author. Here’s one from a fan he met in Washington, D.C.

The woman grew up as Geisel’s neighbor in La Jolla, “and when she was about 13 years old, she decided she should be able to meet Dr. Seuss,” Dreyer said. “So she climbed over his back fence, and ran into the gardener behind his house.”

Naturally, she asked for an introduction.

“And the gardener said, ’Look, you can’t just walk up and meet Dr. Seuss. But if you want to come back and walk up to the front of the house, and meet him in about 15 minutes, well, you can.’

“… So she comes back and knocks on the front door, and the ’gardener’ answers and says, ’Hello. I’m Dr. Seuss.’” True story.

So what if Hovenic could go back in time and meet Seuss himself? What if they sat down and had the proverbial beer?

For starters, he said, he’d ask if the beer were as good as the brew Geisel’s father made during Prohibition. (That’s another area in which he’s well read—Geisel’s family history. Don’t get him started.)

The thing is, Hovenic said, “I feel like I have met him.