For most people, a vase is a vessel used to display a floral arrangement. For Steve Wynn, it’s a vessel to bridge and expand cultures. Hotelier and world renowned art collector Steve Wynn’s recent purchase of an exquisite Ming vase broke records because of its price, (around $10 million) and wowed the art world. But, in donating it to a small museum, Mr. Wynn showed his true colors.
Steve Wynn is used to inspiring awe. As a 20-something with an English Lit degree, he made a name for himself as a hotelier in the 1960’s with the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. That was just the beginning. He helped to revolutionize the hotel world and revitalize Las Vegas when he created The Mirage in 1989. Treasure Island and ode-to-art Bellagio came next. But, when the theme hotels became passé in his eyes, he started from scratch again, creating The Wynn Las Vegas, which opened late last year and stands out like a diamond among sequins in the Vegas skyline. It’s glamorous, yet homey enough for Wynn and his wife Elaine to reside in a wing of the hotel. Before they moved back to the city, the Wynn’s built and lived at the famed Shadow Creek Golf Club outside of Las Vegas. My husband and I were married there in 1996, with Steve serving as best man. The night before the wedding, Steve threw a surprise bachelorette party for me, ending up the lone man with 20 women and ultimately was the life of the party. He left everyone impressed with his charisma and generosity. At the same time, you always knew who was “in charge”, as Steve Wynn is a born leader. Multi-talented, tanned and perfectly attired, his satin-on-leather voice belies a missed opportunity in the world of radio. Fortunately, the hospitality industry got him. He loves architecture and form, but this is a man who loves his “pictures” best. He can’t see them well from afar. Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, has complicated that. The progressive disease leaves its host seeing only through a hole the size of a large pinhead. But, it hasn’t stopped Steve Wynn from skiing, golfing, traveling, building, or collecting. Which brings us back to that vase. Immediately upon purchase, Steve donated the $10 million former lamp stand to a public museum in Macau, China. He says he hopes his future employees and their families will enjoy it as much as he does when he opens the Wynn Macau.
Dina Eastwood: You made an incredible purchase recently of the 14th Century Ming Vase. What drew you to it?
Steve Wynn: It is an extraordinary piece of Chinese history. It’s five hundred years old with red copper glazing around the entire thing – 360 degrees. The copper changes colors when it’s fired, and they would (often) break, come out wrong. For this particular piece, there is a letter from the artist begging the Emperor not to get the copper glazing. I acquired it on June second. I saw the information on it, and I said to myself, “What a great piece of Chinese history. What a wonderful gift it would be to the People’s Republic if this piece could stay in Macau.” Since the town is expanding rapidly, I want the culture to do the same. With the vase displayed in the local museum, the employees can enjoy it. It was always my intention to buy it to be enjoyed by the people of Macau.
Dina: Recently, we got to talk to Donald Trump, and he was the guy reminding me, “You know, you’ve got to talk to Steve!”
Steve: I took Donald to an auction in New York. I bought a self-portrait of Cezanne at that auction.
Dina: Did Donald buy anything?
(When I interviewed Donald Trump he admitted there was a lot about the art world he didn’t understand. The real expert, he said, is Steve Wynn. He also said Wynn was the first to put really fine art on display in casinos).
Dina: What is the process when you buy a painting?
Steve: The right art dealer is given the picture. The art dealer will contact one buyer at a time. They’ll call you and say, “This piece is available. Here’s what it’s all about.” The art dealer, at their expense, comes and hangs it. Then there’s what we call a “condition.” Certain people are allowed to give you the condition, so you get a look at all the data. If it’s not an old master, there will be fewer things to consider. One of my pictures, Le Rêve – there’s no question that it’s a Picasso. When you are deciding on an old master, it’s the same, only everybody knows about the picture. But, still, you want to go back and check it, get opinions, see if there is strong divided opinion. The difference in value between a picture painted by, say, a student of a master and the real thing might be $35, $40 million.
Dina: You’ve encountered that. (With his famously acquired long-lost Vermeer)
Steve: With an old master, you have to find out, is it Vermeer? Is it a student of Vermeer? It took years to get that cleared. The analysis goes on; it’s passed from expert to expert. You want to make sure there is unanimous agreement, and that a great curator gives it the “good housekeeping” standards.
Dina: How long does it take you to decide on a painting? Is it the minute you see it, or do you have to “sleep on it.”
Steve: Oh, I know about the painting the minute I see it. But it’s still a good idea to look at it. The same thing happens when you see a woman, or a woman sees a man. Usually, I react to a picture. If you don’t like it right away, you don’t get it.
Dina: What makes you sell?
Steve: The only time I’ve ever sold is when I was trading up. Everyone has a finite amount of money. My investment is substantial. But, on occasion, when something has come up, I have had to sell a picture. I’ve regretted (selling) every one of them.
Dina: Who are your favorite artists?
Steve: Picasso. Matisse, I have a whole bunch. My taste is very eclectic. Then I’ll do 1940, 1932, by Renoir, Monet, Cezanne. I’ve owned Pollock, de Kooning, Jasper Johns. I love pictures that are strong, which is why I like Picasso and Matisse. Matisse is the greatest colorist of the century. I own pictures by Francoise Gilot. She is 84 years old and still going strong. She and her friend, Dorothea Elkon, were houseguests of mine this weekend in Sun Valley (Idaho). She was the first great art historian, and the only woman to leave Picasso! She is the mother of his two children, Claude and Paloma.
Dina: Which artists do you find overrated?
Steve: I don’t own a lot of contemporary art.
Dina: Let me rephrase that. Which master gets the least response from you?
Steve: You talk about old painters, masters. They had good days and bad days. When I think of an artist, I think of his best work. If you survey all of the artists, painters, the greatest painters of all time, the painting that they thought was best may not be what you find the most interesting. The fact that a collector is more into one painter over another means they have gotten a more affirmative response from the paintings than a negative interest in someone else.
Dina: Which medium do you like best?
Steve: I’m much more in love with painting than sculpture. I love oil paintings. They have not a scratch. Pastels and washes and watercolors are much more delicate. They have to be kept under glass.
Dina: Do you touch your paintings?
Steve: You bet!
Dina: Does that help you “see” them?
Steve: No, it’s just fun. It’s great to see the ridging, the texture – see where the artist used a lot of paint. You know what’s really fun? With self-portraits, you look at the eye of the picture, look into the eyes of Cezanne, you can reach out and touch it, erase time, stand in the artist’s shoes and see exactly where he was when he did the portrait.
Dina: What is your take on education, or lack thereof, in the arts for children?
Steve: We have great kids’ programs to come see the art at the Wynn (in Las Vegas). Somebody’s learning about it because there’s more demand for paintings now. Buying these things isn’t exactly an investment.
Dina: Do you consider the Wynn Hotel to be a large beautiful piece of art?
Steve: Yes. I want it to stimulate the mind. I have spots there where you can curl up. Places that have full range for you to experience the art. That’s yours. People have always been fascinated by art. You look at the world and decide a flower doesn’t look like a flower. Look at the elements around you. The painter uses his hand, not just his mind. And so I sprinkle, I distribute examples of fascinating pieces of art that will give people a tickle in their mind.
When a VIP is checking in, they look at this big picture, and they wonder what it is. The people at the desk say, “That’s a Rembrandt.” The people checking in, they just stand there. They get a big kick out of it! There’s also a Picasso in the hotel, and when people see it, all of a sudden people have another sense of art. It’s elevated. It’s a compliment to people. Someone thought they were important enough to put it up for THEM. It’s saying, “Whoa! Someone put that there because they thought it would make a difference to me.” I think everyone feels good about it when you think people have taste and discretion. If you think they are dumb, then you don’t go for putting art on display. It’s that kind of thing for me. It’s a gesture. And finally, you may own the building, but no one owns a painting. You only have custody. They are bigger than you. These things should be shared with everyone. After a while, you feel self-conscious about having them, so you need to share. Give people a chance to take a peek at this, get a gander here.
Dina: What about security issues? Do people ever try to take advantage of your generosity?
Steve: No. You know that except for, say, the Mona Lisa, you can get your hands on every picture in the world.
Dina: Why is there such respect?
Steve: You’d have to be insane to get mad at an object! As far as thefts go, they’re extremely rare. There was that theft of the Vermeer and Rembrandt. They were stolen, and never recovered. But, you can’t steal the dream. What good is the Le Rêve gonna’ do you? It’s such a small community (the art community), smaller than Hollywood. There’s nowhere you can go with this stuff.
Dina: Do you find the art community more eclectic than the Hollywood community?
Steve: The art community doesn’t move around as fast, especially if you are on the buy side. On the sell side, there are now Internet dealers, who put up pictures of paintings and hope someone sees them and buys them. By and large, important pieces are collected by mainstream art collectors. You know, many great dealers are historians, but not vice versa. Art historians teach and write. But, the dealers get involved in trends with artists, and who is selling whom to whom. Dealers understand all of that. A historian can tell you “A” is better than “B” for the following reason. But a person selling pictures, who sees price tags and trends naturally become historians.
Dina: What started the transition between a man who thought, “Hey, this print is kind of cool” to one of the top collectors in the world?
Steve: I was an art history student at the University of Pennsylvania many years ago, among all the other courses as an English lit major. One course was the Renaissance to the present, and it gave me a chance to go through and study, with the help of professors who had great knowledge, examples of art, and it made us think what was going on in the minds of men and women who painted the pictures.
Art in general is a reflection of what humans think of the environment in which they live. If it’s a sculptor or a painter, everything from desire to violence is shown, reconstructing images and shapes. That’s why I find art, the reflection of the human spirit, so fascinating.
Look what art does to people. In earlier days, it wasn’t a painting; it was the effects that it had on them. Before photography, in the 16th and 17th century, artists WERE the media. People knew about Madonna and the Christ child, dukes and kings, from the painting of pictures showing costumes and profound expressions of the men through the eyes of the artists that they patronized – about HOW they wanted to be seen. Raphael, on instructions from Pope Leo X, painted a painting to be sent to a cousin, a woman, who would marry Lorenzo (his nephew), showing the power of the Medici. Lorenzo died a year later, and then she died in childbirth. But Catherine de’Medici (the daughter) did marry Henry (King Henry II, of France), and they had three sons. Pope Leo DID get what he wanted. This strategy, the use of the painting, the use of Raphael, is different than what we understand about art today.
As time went by, photography took over, and the role of painter became something else. Painters could paint for themselves and reflect the world that was changing with the industrial revolution. Populism became important. In 1870 the impressionists show up; Degas, Monet, Pizarro, Renoir, who couldn’t even have their paintings shown in a legitimate place. People thought their art was SILLY. Their pictures showed people doing what only the upper class had access to in the past – going out of town, sitting in the countryside. See, regular people could now go out of town. The bourgeois became mobile. When a human can get on a train and go somewhere for the afternoon, Jesus, that is a big deal. La loge, by Renoir; the girl on the balcony, a guy in tails looking at the rest of the room, she is a tart, barely respectable, and he is probably looking at another woman, just like the rich people. So you see impressionism as a whole different kind of thing, in relation to 16th or 17th century art where you have Salome, presenting the head of John the Baptist, biblical scenes. Art (through the centuries) has meant incredibly different things.
Then at the turn of the century, in 1907, Picasso. He is unconcerned about the shape of the human. Cameras can do that. He made you think not what things look like, but what things are about. He could think about the use of canvas, the use of paint, the effects of color on the emotions. Then, you have Pollock, in the late 40’s, drops and drips, puts it on with a trowel, and a painting knife.
If you look at a Monet, you think it is pretty, and that gives you pleasure in your brain. A painting brings you pleasure. Pollock, de Kooning say, ‘There is no woman, there is no flower – there is just paint. It’s your human memory that did that.’ We can bypass human memory, stimulate parts of your mind. Does it give you pleasure without it representing a thing? If it does, my picture has as much vitality, and has as much right to be in a room with El Greco, van Gough, Picasso. It’s synthesizing knowledge. People are affected generation by generation.
Dina: How is this being affected by technology?
Steve: We can’t keep up with technology. Art is trying to absorb this as fast as the rest of us are. Art today is very confusing and fascinating. The artists aren’t having any easier time of it than you and I are.
The next step for the ever-fascinating Steve Wynn is the opening of the Wynn Macau, scheduled for September 9. And just a tease – keep an eye on news in the art world. He was considering the purchase of a very important painting when this interview was conducted.
ARTWORKS, Fall 2006
Written by: Dina Eastwood