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Turning greed into a fine art

LAS VEGAS -- So just what was it that caused me to veer my Jeep off the I-15 freeway and onto the Las Vegas Strip?

Was it the Luxor Pyramid, the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the castle at Excalibur, the new mechanical bull at the Frontier, the Big Kitchen Buffet? Was it Wayne Newton at the MGM?Nope. It was fine art.

The freeway billboard for the new Bellagio Hotel said, "Now Appearing: Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne & Picasso."

All at the same time.

Think of the Louvre with a casino attached.

And a sports book, and a hotel, and a shopping mall, and 16 restaurants.

Bellagio was opened last October, just south of Caesar's Palace and just north of a place that says "Paychecks cashed."

Steve Wynn, who already owns big chunks of the strip, needed somewhere to house his expansive personal art collection, worth hundreds of millions, so he built the hotel.

Of all the contrasts in a neon city stuck smack in the middle of a desert this may be the ultimate: disgruntled gambler throws down his hand in disgust and says, "Let's go see that new Cezanne."

Wynn, whose voice personally narrates the gallery's audio tours, says he gets asked all the time, "Why an art gallery in a casino?"

Answer: Because he can afford it.

As Bugsy Seigel would have asked, "You got a problem with that?"

I arrived in the hotel lobby a little after nine in the morning and immediately found myself in a line -- and it wasn't for the buffet.

Just me and several other early morning art lovers.

I paid $12 for admission to the gallery of fine art, where I found about 30 works of art by just about everyone I'd ever heard of in art class.

Rembrandt was there. Gauguin too. Also Henri Matisse and Edouard Manet. And, of course, Peter Paul Rubens.

How would you like to be Rembrandt and realize you didn't make the marquee?

The newest painting, by George Seurat, had been there just a week. The Las Vegas newspapers said Wynn paid $35.2 million for it. After that, he reportedly put in a call to that Arab prince who is known to enjoy a bit of baccarat.

An average of 1,800 people a day are visiting the art gallery, I was told in the gift shop by an attendant named "Claire, New York," the vast majority of them in sandals and golf shirts.

The day I was there the crowd was paying particular attention to the Vincent Van Gogh portrait and the Paul Gauguin Polynesian scene that are placed side by side in tribute to the one-time "studio mates" in the south of France.

Little could Van Gogh and Gauguin realize when they were working away, more than a century ago, that their efforts would one day hang together in the south of Nevada.

If you'd told that to Van Gogh, he'd have said you were nuts.

One other note about the Bellagio: you won't find a lot of starving artists there.

In the Picasso restaurant, for instance, where you are surrounded by paintings and ceramics by the master, the $70 entrees are on the left side of the menu.

Picasso couldn't have afforded to eat there.

Wynn's philosophy: "I provided the art, now let's all pay for it."

The gallery shops include Gucci, Armani, Tiffany, Chanel and Hermes.

How about a nice sport coat for $3,500, maybe a purse for $750 and some perfume for $250 . . . an ounce?

There is no food court.

Still, you are assured a genuine Las Vegas experience, with an impressionistic twist. Thanks to the Bellagio, now you can go to Vegas and drop a bundle and not even gamble.

Send e-mail to benson@desnews.com, fax 801-237-2527. Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.