You never really win an Oscar, you just get to borrow it

February 22, 2013
February 22, 2013

This Sunday, the US-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be giving out its highly coveted Oscar awards for excellence in filmmaking.

Actually, that’s not true. The Academy won’t be giving anybody anything on Sunday. Instead, it will be loaning an Oscar to each award-winner, who may hold onto it for as long as she likes and even pass it on to her heirs, but cannot sell the gold statuette to anyone without first offering to sell it back to the Academy for the handsome sum of $1. If, instead, she tries to hawk it for cash, she’ll hear from David W. Quinto, the Academy’s lawyer, in about the time it takes her to second-guess her eBay starting price.

The Academy is extremely protective of the Oscar’s singular stature and has fought tirelessly to keep the award from becoming a salable commodity, and to purge the world of Oscar knock-offs. Quinto, whose firm has represented the Academy for the past two and half decades, sends notices to potential trademark violators almost every day: A confectioner that makes Oscar-shaped chocolates. Adult stores selling smutty Oscar replicas. Websites such as Oscarwatch.com.

Since 1950, Oscar winners have had to sign a contract guaranteeing the Academy the right of first refusal to buy the statuettes back should the winners or their heirs decide on selling.

But, what Hollywood hero could be so hard-up that he needs to pawn the most important award he’s ever received? Harold Russell, for one. Russell was a World War II veteran who lost both of his hands in combat, then went on to win the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1946′s “The Best Years of Our Lives.” By 1993, having spent more time helping other veterans than acting, Russell needed money and sold his Oscar for $60,500.

By 2006, analysts estimated that some 150 Oscars had been sold in total, and about half of them had been awarded after 1950, meaning that their sale was in violation of the Academy’s contract, according to Forbes.

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The Academy keeping ©Oscar® safe
The Academy keeping ©Oscar® safe.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Academy didn’t respond to a request for a copy of the contract, but it outlines its policy on its website:

Award winners shall not sell or otherwise dispose of the Oscar statuette, nor permit it to be sold or disposed of by operation of law, without first offering to sell it to the Academy for the sum of $1.00. This provision shall apply also to the heirs and assigns of Academy Award winners who may acquire a statuette by gift or bequest.

Brian Berman, a lawyer who counsels on inheritance, mused about this agreement in detail a couple of years ago, and concluded that the Academy would have a hard time actually enforcing it: “…the Academy is largely left to pray that recipients of the prestigious award (and their family members after them) follow the Academy’s heed that they ‘adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of [its] rules.’”

But whenever the Academy catches wind of a contract-bucking Oscar auction, it does its best to stop it. And in spite of the contract’s possible tenuousness, judges and juries usually rule in the Academy’s favor. Here are some of the weirder examples:

Judy Garland’s 1940 juvenile Oscar

Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, was awarded an Oscar in 1940, not for her role in the movie, but “in recognition of her outstanding performance as a juvenile player during the past year.” It was actually a miniature Oscar, standing 7-inches tall, as opposed to the normal 13.5. It was before 1950, so there was no contract.

In 1958, Garland told the Academy she had lost her award and requested a new one. It complied, on the condition that she sign a contract for the replacement. Later, Garland found the original Oscar, and when she died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969, bequeathed it and the duplicate to her husband, Michael Sidney Luft. In 1993, Luft handed the duplicate over to Star Wares, a Hollywood memorabilia store, to sell it. In 2000, the Academy sued Star Wares to get the Oscar back, claiming it would “suffer irreparable and incalculable damage to its reputation and goodwill” if the Oscar sold. Two years later, a federal judge in Los Angeles banned Star Wares from selling the Oscar and ordered Luft to pay the Academy almost $60,000 in damages.

Mary Pickford’s 1930 best actress Oscar for Coquette

Mary Pickford, one of the founders of the Academy, won an Oscar for best actress for her performance in Coquette in 1929, the first such award given for a talking film. In 1975, she won an honorary Oscar for her contribution to the film industry. Her third husband, Buddy Rogers also received an honorary Oscar in 1985. By the beginning of 2007, Pickford and Rogers were both deceased, and all three Oscars were in the possession of Beverly Rogers, Buddy’s second wife. Beverly died in January 2007, and her will stated that the Oscar for Coquette be sold, and that the proceeds go to Buddy’s own charity-run youth symphony (and to a host of other charities for youth actors.)

Beverly’s heirs attempted to sell it, and the Academy sued. It claimed that when Pickford received her second Oscar, she signed a contract that retroactively applied to the first one. One of the heirs estimated that the Oscar would be worth about $500,000, and asked the Academy for that figure. The Academy made an offer to donate $50,000 to the charities over the course of two years. The heirs declined. The jury which ultimately made the decision ruled in favor of the Academy, banning the heirs from selling the Oscar to someone else.

Aaron Rochin’s 1979 best sound Oscar for The Deer Hunter

Last September, an Oscar was put up for auction on eBay and described as being “pre-1950” even though its serial code corresponded to a 1979 Oscar for best sound, awarded that year to the film The Deer Hunter. That award had—at some point in the intervening years—been reported stolen.

The statuette for sale didn’t sell on eBay. But somebody did buy it for $25,000 and  then took it to an appraiser, who judged it a fake. The buyer managed to secure a $15,000 refund and then discarded the award.

At that point, the Academy’s lawyers stepped in and sued both parties: If the statuette was a counterfeit, the lawyers said, the two traders had violated copyright laws; if it were real, they had wronged the Academy “by asserting dominion over the Academy’s property and interfering with the Academy’s right to possession of its property.”

If it’s real, the Academy wants $25,000 in damages—the sale value. But if it’s fake, the Academy wants $150,000.

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