They say you can’t “buy” an Oscar, but that would be a lie. As they do every year, the studios just spent millions in pursuit of them, and Hollywood’s elite seem to covet them more than their first-born. But exactly how much is an Oscar worth? If Tuesday’s latest Nate D. Sanders auction is any indication, it’s a lot.
Screenwriter Charles MacArthur’s 1935 “Academy First Award”, won at the 8th Annual Academy Awards for Best Story for The Scoundrel, sold today for $106,231 While not anywhere near a record for an Oscar statuette, it’s pretty remarkable considering this one was tarnished and had a cracked head and base as well as visible repair done to a break at the ankles. This ‘ol Oscar clearly had weathered a few storms since being presented to MacArthur (he shared the credit with Ben Hecht) on March 5, 1936. The fact it did not come for a major classic film or wildly famous recipient makes the sale even more impressive.
In case any more recent winners are looking to make a fast buck for their Oscar, be warned that a sale like this for any Oscar post-1950 is completely illegal. That is when the Academy started making winners sign an agreement that they or their heirs could not sell their Oscar without first offering it back to the Academy for the paltry sum of $1. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the practice even for those statuettes, and it has been estimated that at least 200 Oscars have been sold in the past and I would guess that a great number of them are post-1950. With this kind of black market in Oscar statuettes, it is obvious that not everyone with the coveted gold man on their mantel actually won it — or was at least related to a winner. But while the Academy may frown, the business of buying and selling Oscars, even as damaged as MacArthur’s, is still a very big one.
Magician David Copperfield bought Casablanca director Michael Curtiz’s 1943 Oscar for $232,000.00 in 2003 before putting it up in a Nate Sanders auction last June, when it fetched slightly over $2 million — not a bad profit but even that figure was well below estimates. Of course, anything associated with Casablanca — considered by many the most immortal film of all — will go for big bucks, and it appears to be a particularly good investment. At a Heritage movie poster auction last week, the 81×81 six sheet for the film took in more than $100,000.
Generally the true classic titles reap the biggest rewards in this auction game, certainly when it comes to Oscars. Orson Welles’ Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane garnered $861,542 in December 2011. The Late Michael Jackson had purchased David O. Selznick’s Best Picture Oscar for Gone With The Wind for $1.5 million, while Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress Oscar as Scarlett O’Hara grabbed half a million. And then there is the case of Steven Spielberg: He already has three Oscars on his mantel that he aquired the old fashioned way. But in 1996 he also purchased Clark Gable’s only Best Actor statuette for 1934’s It Happened One Night for $607,000, then picked up Bette Davis’ second Oscar for 1938’s Jezebel in a 2001 Christie’s auction for $578,000. In both cases he generously turned around and donated them back to the Academy. One Swiss movie buff is known to have collected “several” Oscars including the 1951 Best Picture statuette for An American In Paris.
Incidentally, MacArthur was married to Helen Hayes and, in the spirit of keeping these things not all in the family, her historic first Tony Award from 1947 — the first year Tonys were presented — also sold in yesterday’s auction for $37,230. Interestingly, in the first two years of the Tonys they were in the form of expensive gifts with special engraving. The Hayes Tony for Best Actress-Dramatic in Happy Birthday was a Tiffany’s mirrored sterling silver theatre makeup compact. Hayes is one of only a handful of people to ever win Oscars (2), an Emmy, Tonys (4) and Grammys (2). Hopefully there are no further plans to break up that impressive collection.