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The Guardian

Pssst! Wanna buy an Oscar? The mysterious case of the missing Academy Awards

By Steve Rose,

2023-03-15

In March 2000, three weeks before the 72nd Academy Awards, that year’s entire shipment of Oscars – 55 individually marked, 24-carat-gold-plated statuettes – mysteriously disappeared en route from the manufacturer in Chicago to Los Angeles. The story briefly became a showbiz sensation: the Academy set up a 24-hour tip line; the handling company offered a $50,000 reward; the FBI became involved. But the culprits were no master criminals: they turned out to be a couple of light-fingered but loose-tongued delivery workers, who had stumbled on the crate and thought they had struck gold. They were arrested within days and the show went on.

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Mary Pickford with her Oscar from the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930. Photograph: NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Had these thieves somehow been able to sell the Oscars on the open market, they might have been in for a shock. The going rate for 55 new Oscar statues is $55. Since 1951, all Academy Award winners must sign an agreement that they “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”. The rule also applies to anyone who receives or inherits someone else’s Oscar.

Despite the Academy’s rules, there is still a small but lucrative trade in Oscar statuettes. They are secretly sought, bought and sold by anonymous collectors. Some have changed hands for millions of dollars. And quite a few have disappeared without a trace. In fact, it’s a pretty murky world. There is no official database of who owns each of the more than 3,200 Oscars so far awarded, or how often they change hands.

“I would say that approximately 150 statuettes have been sold either publicly or semi-secretly over the years,” says Caroline Ashleigh, veteran auctioneer and appraisal expert. “For prices from approximately $10,000 to $1.5m. And roughly a dozen lawsuits have been filed over potential sales of Oscar statuettes in recent history.”

The trade began in earnest in 1993, when Vivien Leigh’s family auctioned her best actress Oscar from Gone With the Wind for an eye-catching $563,000. Since it was a pre-1951 statuette, the Academy was powerless to act, but issued a statement saying it “regrets the traffic in Oscars. The statuettes are symbols of recognition by one’s peers of excellence in film-making … The Academy remains concerned and will consider all legal options open to it with regard to each sale.”

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Vivien Leigh with her best actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1940 … it later sold for $536,000. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Many subsequent would-be sellers have fallen foul of those “legal options”. In 2008, for example, three heirs of silent-movie star Mary Pickford (one of the original founders of the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) were blocked in their attempts to sell her 1930 best actress award, for Coquette, and an honorary Oscar she received in 1976. The Academy successfully argued at trial that the agreement Pickford signed in 1976 covered both statuettes.

Some Oscars would almost be worthy of a biopic themselves. Orson Welles’s 1942 best screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane, for example, was reported lost by his daughter Beatrice in 1988. The Academy issued her with a replacement, only for the original to resurface. Welles had left it with a cinematographer named Gary Graver while using it as a prop in his movie The Other Side of the Wind. Graver tried to sell it in 1994, claiming Welles had given it to him in payment, but Beatrice intervened and regained possession of it, which meant she now had two Citizen Kane Oscars. When she tried to auction the original in 2003, the Academy tried, but failed, to put a stop to it (courts eventually ruled that she was permitted to sell the original, but not the replacement). Welles reportedly sold it for an undisclosed sum a few years later. Then in 2011 it resurfaced, and was auctioned for $862,000 by an anonymous seller to an anonymous buyer.

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Judy Garland’s ‘juvenile’ Oscar. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Another courtroom drama unfolded over the sale of Judy Garland’s unique “juvenile” Oscar from 1940 for The Wizard of Oz (which was smaller than the standard issue statuette). It could be considered one of the most collectible items in movie history, except it was also reported lost by Garland’s husband, Sid Luft, in 1958. Again, the Academy provided a replacement, which Luft tried to sell in 1993, 24 years after Garland’s death. The Academy obtained a court order prohibiting the sale, so instead Luft reportedly gave it to his daughter, Lorna. Then, in 2000, Garland’s original 1940 Oscar appeared in the hands of a memorabilia dealer – starting price: $3m. As usual, the Academy obtained a restraining order, after which Luft and the seller denied actually having the 1940 Oscar. The mystery was never resolved.

These kind of disputes seem to happen every few years. Just last month, a woman was blocked from selling David Ward’s 1974 screenwriting Oscar for The Sting, as part of repayment on debts owed to her by Ward. Instead, the courts ruled, she could only sell it to the Academy for $10, as was agreed by Ward when he received it.

Pre-1951 Oscars continue to come up for legitimate sale on a regular basis, albeit without shedding much light on the trade. In 2012, a collection of 15 Oscars was sold at auction for a total of $3m, for example. The buyers were unnamed, and the seller was only identified as a “Los Angeles-area businessman with ties to the entertainment industry”. Last July, Heritage Auctions sold cinematographer Clyde de Vinna’s 1930 Oscar for White Shadows in the South Seas, the second ever Oscar for best cinematography, for $228,000. (“The statuette’s finish exhibits mild tarnish and minor rubbing.”) As usual, neither buyer nor seller were identified.

Who is collecting them? And is there a hidden market? There are always rumours, says Ashleigh. “It’s pretty hard to do it out in the open unless it is something that’s pre-1951,” she says. “But mostly, it’s because they’re truly movie buffs. They love the whole culture. And if they have the money, they’re going to try to find something on the secret market.”

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Hattie McDaniel with her Academy Award for best supporting actress, for Gone With the Wind – at the time a plaque was given for this award. Photograph: John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Some buyers have gone public: in 2003, the magician David Copperfield bought Michael Curtiz’s best director Oscar for Casablanca at auction for $232,000. Reportedly, he kept it in his bedroom, claiming without irony: “Objects should be where they do the most good.” In what could be his greatest magic trick of all, Copperfield resold the statuette for more than $2m in 2012. Another highly unanonymous collector paid a record $1.5m for the best picture Oscar for Gone With the Wind in 1999: Michael Jackson.

Other high-profile buyers have had purer motivations. Between 1996 and 2001, Steven Spielberg bought Oscars belonging to Clark Gable (for It Happened One Night) and Bette Davis (for Jezebel and Dangerous) for a total of $1.4m. He donated all three statuettes to the Academy. Kevin Spacey did the same when he bought George Stoll’s 1946 Oscar for best score for Anchors Aweigh in 2001.

So how many Oscars does the Academy have in its possession? It declined to say. Twenty statuettes are on display at the Academy Museum in LA (where this year’s Oscars ceremony was held), although several of these are borrowed. Spielberg’s Clark Gable statuette is on display, but not the Bette Davis ones. Where are the others?

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Shirley Temple presents Walt Disney with his special award Oscar for Snow White, including seven mini statuettes, in February 1939. Photograph: Masheter Movie Archive/Alamy

There are plenty of Oscars on view elsewhere. Twenty-seven of Walt Disney’s can be seen at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, including his special 1939 award for Snow White, which came with seven little mini-Oscars. Katharine Hepburn’s four best actress statuettes are in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has Vivien Leigh’s for A Streetcar Named Desire and Paul Scofield’s for A Man for All Seasons. And fittingly, Frank Sinatra’s best supporting actor award for From Here to Eternity is in the Sinatra restaurant at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas.

More intriguing are the statuettes nobody has seen for decades. Hattie McDaniel’s best supporting actress award for Gone With the Wind – the first won by a Black actor, though it wasn’t a statuette but a plaque – was on display at Howard University in Washington DC until 1970, when it disappeared. Olympia Dukakis lost hers (best supporting actress, for Moonstruck, 1988) in a 1989 break-in. The thief later phoned and demanded a ransom but the exchange never happened. Marlon Brando’s two for On the Waterfront and The Godfather (the one Sacheen Littlefeather refused to accept), Matt Damon’s for Good Will Hunting, Angelina Jolie’s for Girl, Interrupted, Frank Capra’s for his documentary Prelude to War are all missing. And a few years after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, lawyers admitted “the estate does not know where the Gone With the Wind statuette is”. Perhaps it is languishing, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style, among the singer’s many possessions; or perhaps it is in the hands of a shady collector, along with all the other missing Oscars. Perhaps a master Oscar thief has been operating undetected all this time without anyone noticing.

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Sacheen Littlefeather declines the best actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973, as Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann look on. The whereabouts of this Oscar are not known. Photograph: Ts/Keystone USA/REX/Shutterstock

The Academy did learn one lesson from the ill-fated Oscar heist of 2000, though: if another shipment of Oscars somehow falls off the back of a lorry, it allegedly keeps a stock of emergency statuettes in a secure vault at a secret location, just in case. Let’s hope they’re well guarded.

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