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COVER STORY

No, It Isn't a Mirage

Matisse and Picasso on the Strip? For casino mogul Steve Wynn, whose newest Vegas resort features works from Impressionists to more modern painters, collecting has become a passionate gamble.

September 20, 1998|Paul Lieberman | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

LAS VEGAS — So Steve Wynn phones up one of New York's elite art dealers--this almost exactly two years ago--and announces, "I want to start looking at some paintings. . . . "

Then the punch line, " . . . to put in my new hotel."

That meant, of course, in Las Vegas.

The art dealer, the epitome of gray pinstripes operating around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, understood the challenge--and risk--immediately.

"If you want to do this," he told Wynn, "you'll have to buy top, top quality . . . museum quality . . an exceptional group of pictures."

He did not have to spell it out. Sure, Wynn had led a campaign to lift Las Vegas out of the sleaze by promoting gambling as wholesome entertainment and casino-hotels as Disney-like theme parks. But however many Mirages or MGM Grands sprouted on the Strip, Vegas remained the capital of overstimulated instant gratification, a place where a museum meant the Liberace Museum or one, proposed, dedicated to neon. It was a town that exalted the fake, whether in Wynn's faux volcano (at the Mirage) or the faux New York up the street or, coming, a faux Venice, faux Eiffel Tower, an entire faux Europe, almost.

Fine art in Vegas? You couldn't help but imagine a "Mona Lisa" made of four-leaf clovers.

Wynn said, no, the real thing. Nothing less than art that would "acknowledge my customers' highest capacities for the appreciation of beauty."

Like a Renoir. And other Impressionists. Pretty pictures. The stuff everyone recognizes as masterpieces.

Some Picassos, too--he has marquee value. But none of that Abstract Expressionist bull---- with its drips and blotches.

OK, so the casino mogul, circa 1996, was not quite the art sophisticate.

"He did say one thing to give us a little credibility," recalled William Acquavella, the art dealer who took his call.

"He said, 'I'll definitely spend $100 million.' "

With that, they were off--to the auction houses of Manhattan, galleries of London, warehouses of Zurich and bank vaults of Tokyo. That $100 million soon was forgotten--exceeded to a total thrice that amount--as Wynn became a contender for the title of most active buyer of art in the world.

Two years later, the results are to be unveiled with the opening Oct. 15 of his Bellagio hotel. Designed as an Italian Renaissance palace, at a cost of $1.6 billion (not including the art), it promises the town's most expensive rooms (a minimum of $259 on weekends) and shops (Armani, Chanel, etc.), restaurants nothing like the standard Vegas buffet ("eight James Beard Award chefs!") and 1,100 dancing fountains (to Pavarotti, no less). But none of those has been trumpeted on the huge marquee that teased the Bellagio's opening.

The 90-foot-tall sign that in days of yore might once have promised Sinatra or Elvis announced: "coming soon: VAN GOGH MONET RENOIR and CEZANNE." Below that: "with special guests PABLO PICASSO and HENRI MATISSE."

Guess who's also coming to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, the very masters of drips and blotches that Wynn scoffed at a brief time ago.

While the finishing touches are placed on the Bellagio, their Abstract Expressionist works fill his personal office.

"You learn a lot in two years" is how he explains it.

Indeed, what may have begun as a gimmick--using art to prove a new hotel is a classy joint, in essence--evolved into the education of a collector.

Because of that, more is at stake now than the profit-and-loss statement. Steve Wynn wants something else for himself, his art and his town: to be taken seriously.

A British publication recently dubbed the 60-year-old Acquavella "the world's most secretive art dealer," which is generally how fat-cat clients have wanted it from the time his father set up shop in Manhattan in 1921 to deal in Old Masters. Acquavella joined the gallery out of the Army 38 years ago ("I needed a job") and in 1966 moved it to an old Astor mansion on East 79th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. You make your way through two heavy gates and a security desk to reach the fireplace salons that, on a given day, may display a set of Degas bronze horses below a Degas portrait you've seen in the Met.

If Wynn wanted a Renoir, Acquavella could get him one.

Wynn, 56, had been enamored of Renoir since his introductory art classes at the University of Pennsylvania in the early '60s, when "At the Moulin de la Galette" made him feel "like I was there," he said, right in the outdoor Parisian dance hall.

But his first trips to a museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also left him feeling that such masterpieces were "far away . . . for museums, for Vanderbilts, Rockefellers."

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