No, It Isn't a Mirage

Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

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."

That was before he became a wunderkind in the unlikeliest of fields for an Ivy League English major. At 21, he took over family East Coast bingo halls, his father having died during heart surgery. Four years later, Wynn moved to Las Vegas, where he made his name helping first to revive a seedy downtown--promoting his Golden Nugget with TV spots showing him yukking it up with Sinatra--then turning to the Strip. He opened the Mirage in '89, then Treasure Island, then bought the 166-acre Dunes site for the new hotel he promised would answer the question, "Where is Las Vegas going?"

Then he bought his first Renoir. Acquavella helped him get it, quietly, on Nov. 12, 1996, from a New York doctor. "Young Women at the Water's Edge" (1885) froze time for an idyllic moment along the Seine as a young woman and a girl watch a rowboat pass.

Within days, the art world learned that there was a newcomer to the ranks of high-end collecting, ready to compete with the likes of David Geffen and S.I. Newhouse. November is the time of the major auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's, and Wynn was right on the floor at the first sale, learning the ropes--and opening the checkbook of Mirage Resorts Inc.

He paid $2.9 million for Manet's alluring pastel of a teenage girl--"Portrait of Mademoiselle Suzette Lemaire"--being sold by Vermont's Shelburne Museum; $3.4 million for a landscape from Picasso's Rose Period, the 1906 "Gosol"; and a similar amount for Modigliani's 1916 portrait of Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume.

Anonymity is the norm at such auctions. Deep-pocket buyers worry that their presence may drive up prices and see no good in advertising what's in their dens. When Wynn was asked what he was doing at Sotheby's, he had no reason to hold back: His take was bound for the Bellagio.

For all the talk about art as mass entertainment--how big museum shows outdraw professional sports--the art establishment did not seem ready for this. A New York Times account of the auction quipped, "What would the Havemeyers have thought?," a reference to the bluebloods who founded the Shelburne Museum.

"It's a unique setting, how shall I put it?" Christie's Chairman Christopher Burge recently said of Wynn's plan.

Like others in art's upper crust, he wondered whether this newcomer would be a "foolish buyer," like the Japanese who drove prices wild a decade ago. "The answer," Burge found, "was 'no.' "

Wynn worked from the start not to be an easy mark. "Acquavella was doing all the talking," he noted. "I was a student."

He had to be tutored in the basics: how the first "bids" on many paintings were for show, the auctioneer merely throwing out numbers to reach the minimum; how some paintings were "bought in," not sold at all, although the gavel came down--then you could cut a deal later; and how a "hammer price" of $8.1 million on a Degas was really $9 million because of the commission.

As in blackjack and the other games that had made him rich, you had to keep emotional control, set a limit, develop "auction discipline." That Degas might be beautiful, "but there are other ballerinas around, Steve."

There were other Picassos, too. Which is how Wynn made his first leap as a collector.

Even as he bought the $3.4-million Picasso landscape, Wynn was drawn to a portrait in Acquavella's gallery painted long after his target period for art. Wynn couldn't take his eyes off Picasso's 1942 depiction of the artist's WWII-era mistress, Dora Maar, which had once been owned by Nelson Rockefeller and been in a slew of shows, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 1994 "Picasso and the Weeping Women."

It was not, however, a pretty picture. Half the face was contorted, with a sunken eye, flared nostril and tensely pursed lip.

This is what Wynn saw: "I stare into the eyes of Dora Maar, or Picasso's eyes, as they may be. They're really his eyes. And I try to understand why it is when I look at this fairly simple, two-dimensional flat plane of color, a cartoon-like drawing of a woman staring straight ahead, with a bifurcated face, that she dominates and haunts a room . . . that woman with a dark side and a light side. Psychotic Dora. Psychotic Pablo. Psychotic everybody. Like Dora, we're all caricatures of ourselves because of the dark side and the light side at war with each other."

He traded his landscape, and a few extra millions, for Dora. "That was a pivotal picture," said Acquavella, "because that got him interested in the 20th century and not just Impressionists."

Acquavella sees collectors as three types: the guy who wants to keep up with the Joneses, the guy who wants an investment and the guy who's just passionate about art. His client from Vegas was becoming the third.

As Wynn put it, "Picasso's the one that took me off the training wheels. All of a sudden, Renoir's a little less exciting."

By the next November, when Christie's held its heralded sale of the Ganz collection--modern masterpieces accumulated by an unassuming Manhattan couple over half a century--Wynn "was the subject of considerable rumor [in the art world]," noted auctioneer Burge. "Any major purchase would immediately be attributed to him."

He was not to be seen, though, among the standing-room-only crowd of 2,000 at the Park Avenue auction house. As expected for a heavyweight, he was stashed away--in his case in the boardroom--to bid by telephone.

Wynn's target? The evening's showpiece, Picasso's "The Dream," a colorful rendition of another mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, asleep in an armchair.

Wynn had jetted in the night before with a delegation that included yet another of the artist's paramours, Francoise Gilot, who had become a friend. In the living room of his DC-7, he asked the 76-year-old woman what she thought of "The Dream."

"She said"--Wynn's voice takes on a French-accented falsetto--"Well, you know, it's very famous. But I don't know if it's so famous because it's so wonderful, Steve. . . . It is a good picture, but he used house paint here. I don't like the quality of the color!"

Still, the publicity made the painting tempting for Wynn. He told Burge that, "If I get it, you can say it's me," right from the podium.

"I gotta make sure people come to see the pictures," he reminded Acquavella as they huddled in Christie's boardroom. Then Wynn said, "I'm gonna bid myself."

"Don't get nuts," the art dealer told him.

The estimated price was $30 million, far more than Wynn had yet paid for a work. But in a blink, the bidding passed that.

When Burge said, "36 at the desk," it was Wynn, bidding over the phone.

As the bids jumped $1 million a pop, Acquavella squirmed in his seat. "It's not 'Guernica,' " he said.

But when someone else bid $40 million, Wynn said, "41."

Only when it went to $43 million ("new bidder"), then $44 million, did another lightbulb go off in Wynn's head. With commission, the Picasso would cost $48 million.

"I look at Bill, who's staring at me. I say, 'We in the Van Gogh range.' "

"We certainly are."

So Wynn said, "I'm a tourist. I'm outta here."

Then he got himself a Van Gogh.

He'd seen "Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat" hanging in the Met, on loan from an anonymous owner. Acquavella confided that it "might be" for sale.

Painted in June 1890, about the same time as Van Gogh's famous "Dr. Gachet," it shows the young woman in a yellow bonnet, pretty but all too sad, sitting in front of the sort of wheat stalks Van Gogh went out among weeks later to shoot himself.

Perhaps it did not have the immediate PR value of "The Dream." But Wynn said, "I'd like it more than money."

The price was $47.5 million, nonnegotiable. Wynn said he worried that that might be too steep for the company. So he and his wife, Elaine, bought it themselves.

"It's a safe place to put my money," he reasoned. "I'm not squandering something. It's not like I went and shot crap with it."

By Christmas, the Van Gogh was in the Mirage casino.

'I can't imagine my life before my pictures. When we go away for the weekend, when I come home on Sunday night, I stop at the hotel to go look at them. I touch the Van Gogh. . . ."

So he does this August afternoon, running his finger across the nose of the peasant woman. The oil paint is so thick, it's almost as if Van Gogh sculpted it. Then he runs his finger down to faint ridges across the center of the canvas, the marks of history.

"The poor bastard," Wynn says, "sells one picture in his whole life. His pictures are so worthless that, when he paints, he doesn't let the oil dry. He throws them against the wall, and the frame of one leans against the frames of others and leaves marks across the canvas. Look at this!"

Having noted the flaw some might expect him to cover up, Wynn declares, "Here's as good as it gets!"

He's in the Salon Prive, the Mirage high-roller gambling suite, where the "whales" are brought to play baccarat.

This has been the temporary home for the Impressionists (including a second Renoir) and his favorite Picasso. Wynn recalls the day he hung it, how "one of my large Asian clients walked in and, in perfect English, his second step in the room . . . said, 'Hum. Picasso. Weeping woman. The war years. It must be Dora Maar.' "

The point is not to underestimate his clientele. The favorites among the high-rollers, though, are the pastels of two women less tormented than Dora: Manet's fresh-faced Suzette Lemaire and Degas' 1887 "Dancer Taking a Bow," in which the prima ballerina has taken center stage, away from the corps, holding out a bouquet as the light hits her ravishing face.

The Degas may be the luckiest catch of the collection.

Wynn and Acquavella went to London to pick up a Gauguin ("Bathers") painted in Tahiti a year before the artist's death and once owned by Errol Flynn. Arriving early, they stopped at a gallery that, that very day, had a new painting arrive on consignment. The Degas.

"Bill almost fell down," Wynn recalls. " 'You know the [Degas] you bid on at the last auction and didn't get? . . . This is better.' "

It had been owned by one of the Rothschilds and had not been exhibited, anywhere, in 50 years.

"At this level, I'll tell you, it is a treasure hunt," Wynn says. "And some of the guys who are the competition are double-shifty, clever, clever. . . ."

The war stories pour out with photographic memory: each bid and dealer, the detail of a picture frame, the psyche of Cezanne's housekeeper. . . .

But then Wynn stops, worried how it looks. For so much of the fun is the money talk, carving out how you can spend $300 million chasing art--about $160 million in company money, the rest his own--loving every minute.

"This can't be about money," he says. "It has to be the pictures! This is a dicey thing still, introducing fine art in this environment."

A counter-argument is made to him: Isn't it liberating to acknowledge the public fascination with the money of art? Doesn't virtually every visitor to every museum at some point whisper, "I wonder what that's worth?" Don't folks line up outside the Getty's last gallery not only because the pretty pictures are there, the Impressionists, but also because Van Gogh's "Irises" once sold for $53.9 million?

Isn't that why Warhol silk-screened sheets of money, then suggested they be replaced with the real thing. "Say you're going to buy a $200,000 painting," he said. "I think you should take the money, tie it up and hang it on the wall."

Wynn knew Warhol. The man silk-screened him in '83. And the Bellagio gallery will have an "Orange Marilyn."

Wynn would have none of it, though. Not with the "Show me the Monet" jokes going around.

Two days before, he'd had to rush to the Nevada Tax Commission after it tried to kill his plan to charge $10 admission to the Bellagio gallery. It also questioned his lobbying for a bill providing property and sales tax breaks for art over $25,000 that is displayed in public.

Some commissioners were under the impression that his art would hang over slot machines. Wynn patiently said, no, "nowhere near" the casino--the gallery will be off a tranquil atrium. As at a museum, a fee will be for upkeep--security, etc.--and a matter of principle. "I don't want to cheapen the experience," he said. "If I charge nothing for it, it will be perceived as nothing." Any proceeds? Off to charity.

The tax bill? Since he and his company were classified as art dealers, they are already exempt, he said. The idea of making Nevada a tax haven for art, he insisted, was to encourage others to follow his lead, to buy and display.

But there he was, having to swear that this gallery thing was no "money grab." And when he went philosophical and talked about all the legal gambling around the country and how "slot machines don't mean a damn thing anymore" so Las Vegas has to take itself to another level, to appeal to the human spirit and bring in the sophisticated tourists who now go to New York or Paris, it came out this way in the local newspaper: "Wynn said the art is intended to give a soul to the property, similar to the dolphins' function at the Mirage hotel-casino."

This in his hometown. How would it play elsewhere?

"I am frightened," Wynn says in the high-roller room. "It's very easy for people who don't know anything about us to be pejorative. We don't get the benefit of the doubt here. Now I'm fooling with something out of the mainstream. I am presenting a tremendously costly collection of paintings spanning 100 years. I want that collection to be treated seriously. . . .

"I am running the risk of offending the art community. I don't want to do this. I don't want to make it easy for anyone to knock this. . . . So whenever the conversation comes up, I'm not the one to discuss price. I don't want to lead with my checkbook. If the paintings are recognized for what they are, as wonderful examples of the artists' work--better than the Getty in Impressionism--then after that we can talk about money. . . ."

Wynn does not want to appear--his worst insult--"Trumpish."

He does have to take care of business, though. So as he leaves the salon, he nods to one of eight employees tending to the one gambler, a Chinese gent in a black T-shirt. The man is focused on his baccarat ledgers, not Dora.

"How's he doing?" Wynn asks his manager.

"Losing about $50,000 right now."

Later Wynn reports that the fellow dropped, in auction-speak, "one-point-three."

Emerging into the din of the main casino, Wynn takes the precautionary measure he always must in such a setting: He places his left arm on the shoulder of a visitor to guide him through the clutter. For Wynn is losing his sight. He has suffered from retinitis pigmentosa since he was 29. His vision has gradually narrowed. Now he has tunnel vision, seeing only what's straight ahead. Anything below or to the side, a table perhaps, is an unseen barrier.

But the dramatic story line--tycoon growing sightless embraces the most visual of passions, art--is one Wynn refuses to play out.

"It's not a factor in my appreciation of art. Everyone thinks, 'Ah, here's a clue to his personality.' It would be ridiculous to say I'm not aware of it. Any sane person would be apprehensive. [But] it's not what makes Sammy run. I'm not driven by this. . . ."

He tells you how he skis 40 times a year (OK, with a guide). And he can read aloud, word for word, his forward to the 246-page book on the Bellagio collection that will be sold in its gift shop.

He insists on being a man with vision--literally and metaphorically.

To help gain acceptance for his latest vision, he brought in art critic Libby Lumpkin as curator and editor of the collection book, along with an art establishment luminary, Edmund "Ted" Pillsbury, until recently the director of Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. "My role," Pillsbury says, "is to make sure that the gallery is established on the very best international museum standards."

Lumpkin also has given previews to art insiders such as Paul Schimmel, chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, who seemed surprised to find so many "demanding" works and "truly exceptional pieces . . . any museum would be proud to own: a very touching Gauguin, a male Modigliani [portrait] . . . the Degas. That work singularly is breathtaking."

The better-than-the-Getty talk is a stretch, Schimmel said. But he was intrigued by the spectacle: "I don't know any museum that has a billboard a couple of hundred feet high. The whole thing is kind of a collision of different strategies. It is as disconcerting and disorienting as much of Las Vegas is."

The plan at the start is to display just 28 works in two rooms--three sculptures and 25 paintings, classic works by the leading artists from Impressionism to Pop. An overflow of Picassos will decorate a restaurant called, well, Picasso.

Pillsbury expects up to 400,000 visitors to the gallery the first year by keeping it open 9 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. A reservation system will let 50 in every 20 minutes, with preference to Bellagio guests and high-rollers (personal Steve Wynn tours for them), but perhaps a few spots held aside for foot traffic.

There also will be a sign in the gallery, somewhere, indicating that all the works may be purchased. "Inquire."

But try finding a price high enough get Wynn to part with Dora or the ballerina.

Wynn insisted on recording the audio tours himself so that visitors who may never have been to a museum can hear, firsthand, why he became passionate about those paintings and about a recent spate of acquisitions--$50 million worth of Abstract Expressionist works.

He taunted his daughter about that post-WWII genre when she graduated from Yale in art history in 1991, daring her to explain it. She shrugged. He was hopeless.

This February, though, Acquavella and a curator from the Guggenheim took him to a warehouse in Switzerland to show him a Pollock drip-painting, "Frieze," and De Kooning's "Police Gazette," both from the mid-'50s. Boom. "I got it," he said.

Now they're hung on each side of his desk, destined for the Bellagio's gallery. Two more De Koonings will grace the hotel's lobby at next month's opening.

"I always think no one is going to show up," Wynn said when he appeared before the Nevada Gaming Commission recently to get the license for the Bellagio. "Make no mistake about it, this is a reach. . . . I feel like the guy at a crap table. . . . He's got his last five bucks . . . and he says, 'God, if you get me out of this I'll never ask you another favor.' "

The biggest risk, in this turbulent international economy, may be how the Bellagio is defying the illusion that usually draws visitors to Vegas--that a stay here is cheap, even if you somehow go home with no money. At the Bellagio, nothing's cheap.

Wynn is confident enough in his crazy idea, leading the place with art, that he's planning to put similar galleries in hotels he's opening in Biloxi, Miss., and Atlantic City. But it's also occurred to him that his whole notion may be folly. And if that's the case, there's one side benefit to his having sold 7 million of his shares of Mirage stock this year, worth more than $150 million, to pay for his growing personal portion of the art, including the Van Gogh.

"It's my picture," he said. "If I retired and art was a bad idea in Las Vegas, I'd be glad to take it home tonight. And not say another word."


The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art opens, along with the hotel, on Oct. 15. 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas. (702) 693-7111.

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