High art for the high rollers in the Louvre of Las Vegas

Sin City's Steve Wynn is suddenly the most important art buyer in the world. David Usborne reports from the Strip

HOW TO tell the genuine from the fake in Las Vegas? The Michelangelo David at the front entrance of Caesar's Palace attracts hordes every day, but is faux. So do the white tigers in the lobby of the Mirage next door and they, to be sure, are real. But so, by the way, are the seven Picassos hanging in the same hotel's top restaurant, Melange. Tap one with your butter knife and watch how fast the security goons rush in.

Take seriously also the giant hoardings that went up last week outside the still unfinished Bellagio Hotel. While other properties along the Strip boast a predictable roster of entertainers past their sell-by dates - Paul Anka, David Cassidy and Wayne Newton - the Bellagio trumpets: "Coming soon, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and Cezanne". A second sign tantalises: "Special Guests, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse".

The word is out, and it may make you shudder. Las Vegas, the world capital of temptation and tat, is branching out. To the familiar sinner's brew of roulette, one-armed bandits and fast-as-you-like wedding ceremonies, add a new, altogether unexpected ingredient: fine art and never-before- seen antiquities.

When it opens in October, the Bellagio, conceived by Steve Wynn, the American gaming tycoon and owner of the Mirage, will be more than just the latest word in architectural excess, though it has enough of that: meant to evoke the villas of northern Italy, it has its own mini-Lake Como lapping the Strip, quivering cypress trees and 1,100 tinkling fountains. It will also be crammed, however, with a collection of impressionist and contemporary art to rival the world's leading galleries. It is already being dubbed the Louvre of Las Vegas.

In November, the screamingly brash Rio All-Suites and Casino, just off the Strip, will open its doors to the largest exhibition of Romanov Dynasty treasures ever to leave the Peterhof Reserve-Museum in Russia. For six months, Wedgwood dinner services, a Faberge egg and the throne of Peter the Great will be among more than 1,000 pieces displayed in a series of rooms being built in the Casino to recreate, down to the last detail, the salons and galleries of the Peterhof itself.

The hard-to-imagine joining of hands between the Rio and the Peterhof will be marked today by an equally unlikely ceremony in St Petersburg. Two months after purchasing a rare Romanov snuffbox at auction in New York for $74,000, the president of the Rio Casino, David Hanlon, will this morning deliver it to Dr Vadim Znamenov, the Peterhof's general director, as a gift. "To the Peterhof with love: Sin City".

Other casinos in Vegas are also dipping into serious art. The MGM Grand, while coy about its plans, is expected to decorate its soon-to-be-built "MGM Mansion" with world-class paintings. No one, however, is likely to rival Mr Wynn, who has surfaced as the most important art buyer in the world. He personally, and the Mirage company he heads, have spent almost $300m (pounds 185m) on art in just a few months.

Among his acquisitions, some of which now decorate the Mirage awaiting the completion of Bellagio, is Degas' Dancer Taking her Bow (bought for $12m), Picasso's Seated Woman ($1.65m) and Alberto Giacometti's Pointing Man ($7.35m). In March, he paid $50m for seven contemporary pieces by artists such as Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and Cy Twombly.

David Nash, a former Sotheby's auctioneer and now a leading dealer in New York, sees in Steve Wynn the same appetites displayed by very wealthy men before him. "It's in the grand tradition of American industrialists such as Frick and Mellon and Barnes, who have made large sums of money and bought prodigious collections to show off," he notes.

Not everyone has greeted Mr Wynn's spree with such equanimity. Mr Nash concedes that it has "most certainly driven up the price among top-of- the-line pictures". Other collectors are being squeezed out, as well as galleries and museums hungry for masterpieces. After some of the company's shareholders began to get restless earlier this year, Mr Wynn sold some of his shares in Mirage and began to buy on his own account. He will lease back the pictures he has bought to the Bellagio for display.

And then, of course, there is the question: can vulgar Vegas appreciate what it is getting? Even to pose it raises the hackles of Alan Feldman, a spokesman for Mr Wynn, who instantly detects elitism and snobbery. "So the general public may not immediately recognise a Monet from a Manet, but they are as moved and touched by the paintings as anybody," he says. "They can't put those feelings into words in the way a professor can, but they still feel. It's amazing to me how the cognoscenti, as it were, dismiss that."

Lee Cagley, who is heading the design team recreating the Peterhof at the Rio, believes that he sees, meanwhile, a broad maturing both of the city and of the punters coming to play in it. "I think the customer has become more educated and more sophisticated and I think Las Vegas has as well," he says. Clearly, attracting new and, hopefully, wealthier clients, is part of what both the Rio and Mirage are after.

Probably, though, only a tiny fraction of the punters will notice the new rarification of the desert air. Andrew, a waiter at Melange, calculates that the Picassos inside go completely unnoticed by about half of the diners who come in. And usually he does not disturb their ignorance. "You know how it is. When a gentleman comes in with a lady, he doesn't want to hear about Picasso."

Show a Seated Woman to folk in Las Vegas, he seems to be saying, and how many will know whether it is real or fake? And more to the point, how many will care?

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