Shy Oscar Rarely Comes to Market

Some of the rarest—and most sought-after—pieces of movie memorabilia are the statuettes given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at its annual award ceremonies, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 22 this year.

The Academy Award of Merit, otherwise universally known as the Oscar.

The Academy Award of Merit, otherwise universally known as the Oscar.

Known universally as Oscar, the statuette stands more than a foot high (13.5 inches) and is made of gold-plated Britannia metal by R. S. Owens and Co. in Chicago. Designed in 1929 by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by George Stanley, Oscar is an art-deco image of a knight standing on a reel of film, hands gripping a Crusader’s sword. The five spokes of the reel represent the five branches of the academy: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers.

Mexican film director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández reportedly posed naked for the original design.

For the first three years, the awards were made of solid bronze and then changed to Britannia metal, a stronger metal that is an alloy of tin, copper and antimony, much like pewter. After casting, the statues are polished, and then plated with a series of metals: copper, nickel and silver. The final plating is 24K gold. Oscars are believed to contain more gold than any other major award statuette.

During World War II when metals were scarce, the academy distributed Oscar statues made of plaster. When the war ended, the plaster awards were swiftly replaced with authentic metal statuettes. All the plaster substitutes were believed destroyed until one surfaced recently in the academy’s vault.

The only change in the design of Oscar over the years has been in the base. Originally, it was slightly smaller and made of Belgian black marble. Since 1945, the base has been slightly taller and made of spun brass plated in black nickel.

Unique Oscars

A few unique Oscars have been created over the years. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s 1937 Oscar statuette sported a movable jaw, in honor of his Charlie McCarthy dummy. Walt Disney received a standard Oscar statuette and seven miniatures for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1938. Shirley Temple received a miniature “junior” Oscar in 1934 at the age of 6.

Officially, the statue is named the Academy Award of Merit, but everyone, even the academy, calls him Oscar. Legend has it that he received this name from Margaret Herrick, the academy’s longtime librarian and later executive director, who nicknamed him after a favorite uncle.

Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky first used the name in print in his column about Katharine Hepburn’s first Best Actress win at the sixth awards presentation in 1934. The academy itself didn’t use the nickname officially until 1939.

The academy is fiercely protective of Oscar, posting this warning on its Web site: “The Oscar statuette is the copyrighted property of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the statuette and the phrases Academy Award(s)’ and ‘Oscar(s)’ are registered trademarks under the laws of the United States and other countries.”

All nominees for Oscars since 1950 have been required to sign a legal document requiring them and their heirs “not to sell or otherwise dispose of” the statuette, or if they can no longer keep it, to sell it back to the academy for $1.

Selling Oscars

Whenever an Oscar comes up for sale, the academy’s legal department moves swiftly to identify the origin of the award and, if possible, block its sale.

The heirs of the Mary Pickford estate recently came into conflict with the academy when they tried to sell one of the Oscars awarded to the silent film star. Pickford won the Best Actress Oscar, one of the first ever awarded, for her performance in the 1929 melodrama “Coquette.” In 1976, she received a second honorary Oscar for her contributions to the film industry, including cofounding United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The 1929 Oscar, estimated to fetch at least $500,000 at auction, should fall outside the 1950 time limits, but the academy counters that the agreement Pickford signed for her 1976 award also covered the earlier statue.

Orson Welles’ Best Writing Oscar from “Citizen Kane” when it was up for auction.

Orson Welles’ Best Screenplay Oscar from “Citizen Kane” when it was up for auction.

Orson Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, had similar difficulties trying to sell her father’s Best Screenplay Oscar for the 1941 classic, “Citizen Kane.” The academy sued her in 2003, saying that she had signed an agreement in the 1980s when she received a replacement Oscar not to sell it or the original if it was ever found. She recovered the original and put it up for auction at Sotheby’s, but the academy blocked the sale.

The courts ruled that the agreement in this instance did not cover the heirs of the award’s recipient, and Beatrice later sold the Oscar to a charitable foundation. It in turn put Oscar up for auction and the statue finally went on the block in December 2007 at Sotheby’s, estimated to bring in $800,000 to $1.2 million (up from estimated $400,000 in 2003). However, it was withdrawn when bids failed to meet its reserve price.

Some still reach collectors

Despite the best efforts of the academy, some pre-1950 Oscars do reach the gavel:

• The award for Best Picture, 1941, “How Green was My Valley,” sold in 2004 for $95,600.

• Ronald Colman’s 1947 Best Actor award for “A Double Life” sold in 2002 for $175,000.

• Bette Davis’ 1938 Best Actress award for “Jezebel” sold in 2001 for $578,000.

• Clark Gable’s 1934 Best Actor award for “It Happened One Night” sold in 1996 for $607,500.

• The Oscar awarded to “Gone with the Wind” for Best Picture in 1939 sold in 1999 for $1.54 million.

• Steven Spielberg is known to have bought the statuettes awarded to Clark Gable and Bette Davis at auction and subsequently returned them to the academy.

Clark Gable accepting one of his three Oscar (“It Happened One Night,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and “Gone With The Wind.”

Clark Gable accepting one of his three Oscars (“It Happened One Night,” “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Gone with the Wind.”)

Fifty awards are cast each year by R. S. Owens. Imperfect casts are destroyed. Any unused awards are placed in the academy’s vault until the next year. All these measures keep Oscar one of the most sought-after and hardest-to-find collectibles in both the awards statues and movie memorabilia categories.

Image and name of Oscar © A.M.P.A.S.

Allan Maurer is a Worthologist who specializes in movie and Hollywood memorabilia

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