Question: I've heard that Oscar winners sometimes sell their statuettes and that there's supposedly something wrong with that. What's the story, and just for the record, what is an Oscar worth?
Answer: The only Oscar winner who actually sold his own statuette was Harold Russell, who traded his best-supporting-actor statuette from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) for $50,000 in 1992. Russell, a nonactor, played a World War II veteran who comes home a double amputee, as Russell himself had done in real life. And he actually won two Oscars for the same performance, so even after selling his acting award, he had a special Oscar "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans" for his mantle.
But generally when an Oscar is up for sale, it's by heirs of the person who actually won the award, and the problem is that for more than 50 years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying to make people think of Oscars as holy relics on a par with gilded icons rather than collectible commodities. In 1950 the Academy started asking winners to sign an agreement that they wouldn't sell their Oscars, and now they require them to sign a document that includes the provision "I agree to comply with your rules and regulations respecting [the statuette's] use and not to sell or otherwise dispose of it, nor permit it to be sold or disposed of by operation of law, without first offering to sell it to you for the sum of $1.00.... This agreement shall be binding not only on me, but also on my heirs, legatees, executors, administrators, estate, successors and assigns." The legatees, heirs successors et al argue that if they need the money and can get it by selling a metal statue given to them by relatives, employers or trusted friends, the Academy has a lot of nerve telling them they can't.
Some Hollywood team players with cash to spare in return for brownie points have bought up Oscars and donated them back to the Academy. Agent Lew Wasserman bought Russell's statuette, and Kevin Spacey laid out $156,875 for the Oscar composer George Stoll won for Anchors Aweigh (1945). Steven Spielberg has rescued three: Clark Gable's Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934) and Bette Davis' for Jezebel (1938) and Dangerous (1935), paying $607,500, $578,000 and $207,500, respectively.
Other showbiz types have declined to join the crusade. Michael Jackson owns the best-picture Oscar awarded to Gone with the Wind (1939), or at least he did in 1999, when he paid $1.5 million for it. And magician David Copperfield recently spent close to a quarter of a million dollars for Michael Curtiz's best-director Oscar for Casablanca (1943). Their take boils down to this: Oscars are memorabilia, like pairs of prop ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. As you can probably tell, I'm on their side.