Treasure chest: Secret artwork hidden behind breasts at the Venetian revealed

A composite image of two of the subjects on a statue inside the main lobby of the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

A few months ago in the middle of the night, Venetian staff members entered the hotel’s ornate lobby near the registration desk, draped its famous zodiac-themed mermaid sculpture and crowded around. While an engineer struggled with a secret switch behind the head of one of the mermaids, others anticipated the mystery inside.

Within an hour of working discreetly behind the curtain (and under the dramatic murals on the gold-plated dome above), they broke through the protective shellac and released the latch. The mermaid’s breasts popped open, leaving the workers awestruck.

A statue inside the main lobby of the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev.

There had been talk of a treasure buried within “The Armillary Sphere” for years, and it was obvious something was indeed different with the bosom of one of the mermaids. Her breasts had been attached separately after the initial construction, and it was difficult to miss the anomaly on one of the most-photographed sculptures on the Strip.

Toland Grinnell, the New York artist responsible for the work, said he’d never kept it a secret—that over the years someone from the hotel would contact him about the rumor, which he’d always confirm, but nothing came of it. Someone who’d attended a talk in which Grinnell discussed the work brought it to the attention of a Venetian concierge, who finally set into motion the culminating reveal. On December 5, as part of its Ultimo weekend, the Venetian will show the hidden work to select visitors: a colorful, three-dimensional diorama of the canals of Venice made from wood, resin, paint and other materials.

“We always tout the many ‘hidden treasures’ of the Venetian—but this was literally hidden,” says Keith Salwoski, the property’s executive director of public relations.

As to why the hidden piece is there, Grinnell, who is an accomplished contemporary artist, says he was hired to fabricate a work that would fit in with the hotel’s richly indulgent Renaissance theme. His adoration of Las Vegas—its incorporation of the high and low, the old and new, the right and wrong and its democratic predications—is what inspired him to take the job. “They were trying to re-create Renaissance Venice, and I was giving them contemporary art,” Grinnell says. “If there’s any place where those two things could collide, it would be Las Vegas.”

Additionally, he says, “It speaks to Las Vegas in the sense that the closer you look, the more there is. The ingenuity that goes into those casino environments is monumental. I wanted to make a microscopic version of the monumental effort of the hotel. They really committed themselves. The Venetian is a scale model of Venice, so I created a scale model within a scale model.”

Snapshot of the revealed diorama.

Stylistically, the mermaid sculpture differs from Grinnell’s works exploring consumer culture and excess in works that turn banality into luxury. But, he explains, it’s not that much of a stretch. “The work I am best known for are my trunk sculptures,” he says, referring to trunks that open to create luxury environments. “So the Venetian sculpture is in harmony with my work.”

When learning this week of the hotel’s middle-of-the-night discovery of the hidden treasure—a discreet effort, because fumbling with a statue’s D-cups would seem awkward to guests and because Venetian officials were unsure what to expect—the artist was elated.

“They had their own archaeological experience inside their own hotel,” he said. “That’s the sh*t dreams are made of.”

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