Putting Oscar on the block

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

LOS ANGELES (AP) — 'Tis the season when many stars are preparing for months-long campaigns with the distant hope of bringing home an Academy Award come February.

But winning isn't the only way to snag one of the coveted statuettes. Enthusiastic collectors with several hundred thousand to spare can achieve Oscar glory at the right auction house. And they could do it next as soon as the weekend.

The latest prize to go under the hammer is James Cagney's 1942 best actor Oscar for his role in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Auctioneer Nate D. Sanders has required an $800,000 minimum bid for the trophy, which they predict could sell for upward of $1 million by the time the auction closes Thursday night.

"It's the most prestigious Oscar to hit the market in recent years," says Sam Heller, a representative of Nate D. Sanders. For one, he notes, there hasn't been a best actor Oscar available in two decades.

The scarcity of Oscars for purchase isn't an accident. Historically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not looked kindly on the free market sale of the prize.

"The academy, its members and the many film artists and craftspeople who've won Academy Awards believe strongly that Oscars should be won, not purchased," the academy said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Unfortunately, despite our objections, we don't have the legal means of stopping the sale of certain statuettes, including this one."

In an effort to combat the sale of awards by winners or their estates, the motion picture academy instituted a rule in 1951 that requires those seeking to sell their Oscars to first offer it to the academy to purchase for $1. That means that any award won before 1951 is, for the most part, fair game.

"It really feeds the fire for collectors. Even on the black market," says Julien's Auctions President and CEO Darren Julien of the legal restrictions. Julien has sold Oscars for auction in the past, but his relationship with the academy is paramount. "We seek their permission before we sell something," he says.

There are rare exceptions even to the 1951 rule. Consider the case of Mary Pickford. According to Julien, even though she won in 1930, her estate was unable to sell the award since Pickford signed the academy agreement when she accepted her honorary Oscar in 1976.

The types of collectors who purchase Oscars vary wildly. The late Michael Jackson famously acquired David O. Selznick's "Gone With the Wind" Oscar for a record-breaking $1.5 million. Even Steven Spielberg bought acting Oscars for Bette Davis's "Jezebel" performance and Clark Gable's role in "It Happened One Night." Spielberg has since donated both back to the academy.

Most collectors, however, remain anonymous. Both Julien and Heller say that Hollywood memorabilia is extremely popular in Asian countries.

"These are the new Monets," says Julien. Not only are they conversation pieces, but, they're also investments.

The value for Oscars has skyrocketed in recent years, too. Something that might have sold for $75,000 in 2003 could fetch up to $300,000 today, says Julien. While some collectors will display the trophy on their mantles, others fear theft and either lock them away or send them to museums for safe keeping.

Whether or not Cagney's Oscar will sell for the listing price or even higher remains to be seen. There were no bids listed as of Wednesday night. Heller contends this is nothing for him to worry about, though, and that bids will come in right before the auction closes.

Million dollar sales are actually extremely rare when it comes to Academy Awards. Jackson's $1.5 million splurge was an anomaly. One of the highest sales in recent years was for Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" Oscar, which Nate D. Sanders sold for a cool $861,542.

Cagney fervor might pale in comparison to the fandom behind one of the greatest films of all time, but Welles did once say that Cagney was "maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera." Perhaps the final price will prove it.


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