Winning an Oscar is priceless, but selling it gets you exactly $10

For those who win an Academy Award, that gleaming, iconic Oscar represents a validation of filmmaking excellence that money can't buy.

Or can it?

If Oscar winners or their heirs ever try to sell the gold-plated statuette bearing their name — be it Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence or Meryl Streep — they will hear from the academy's lawyers.

And the attorneys will make them an offer they can't refuse: Sell it back to the academy for $10.

If they don't, the Oscar goes to ... court.

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Attorney John B. Quinn, the academy's general counsel, said it is important for the academy to prevent anyone from trying to exploit the significance of the award and dilute its artistic value.

"They shouldn't become items of commerce that can be purchased and sold on the market," he said.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences places strict rules on those who are bestowed the honor and has aggressively pursued anyone who tried to sell the Oscar. It is part of a broader strategy to protect the Oscar brand by attempting to quash all attempts to infringe the Oscar's copyright and trademark.

The approach has resulted in critics accusing the academy of using "strong arm" tactics to legally bully people into submission.

The academy has shut down party rentals of 8-foot faux Oscar statuettes, sued a North Hollywood chocolatier for making candy in the shape of an Oscar and forced websites that use the Oscar moniker, such as trivia site Oscarwatch.com, to change its name or shut down.

The efforts were bolstered by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in 1991 that the award was protected under federal copyright laws and was not part of the public domain.

"We conclude that the academy's sleek, muscular gold statuette known as 'Oscar,' which is recognized worldwide as a distinctive symbol of outstanding achievement in film ... is entitled to protection," the ruling said.

As for the sale of statuettes, the academy won a major legal victory last year when a Los Angeles County judge affirmed an academy rule that forbids any winner (or whoever comes to possess a statuette) from selling the trophy without first offering it to the academy for the tidy sum of $10.

During nearly 30 years, Quinn and his Los Angeles law firm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, have filed about a dozen lawsuits on behalf of the academy to halt sales of Oscar statuettes. The firm has also sent about 100 letters to would-be sellers; some are gentle reminders of the rules and others are cease-and-desist demands, which usually do the trick, Quinn said.

Since the first Academy Awards in 1929, 3,001 Oscars — officially known as the Academy Award of Merit statuette — have been handed out at the star-studded annual celebrations.

"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 Times asking about its legal stance.

Every recipient since 1951 has signed an agreement that gives the academy the right of first refusal. That agreement was also made part of the academy's bylaws so that every Oscar winner who has been an academy member is subject to the same rule, no matter when he or she received an Oscar.

That in turn has sharply narrowed the supply of Oscars that legally can be sold, even while the demand among collectors and others remains intense.

The 1939 best picture statuette for "Gone With the Wind," for instance, was bought in 1999 for $1.54 million by Michael Jackson. The 1941 best screenplay Academy Award for "Citizen Kane," presented to Herman Mankiewicz, was sold in 2012 for $588,455.

Magician David Copperfield bought the Oscar won by director Michael Curtiz for "Casablanca" and kept it in his bedroom for inspiration before later selling it.

Steven Spielberg, a multiple Academy Award winner in his own right, bought three Oscars to donate them back to the academy.

In 1996, he paid $607,500 for Clark Gable's best actor Oscar for 1934's "It Happened One Night." He also bought a pair of best actress Oscars awarded to Bette Davis, paying $578,000 for the statuette won for the 1938 movie "Jezebel" and $180,000 for the award given for the 1935 film "Dangerous."

In 2007, three heirs of Mary Pickford, the silent-movie star known as "America's sweetheart," attempted to auction the best actress Oscar presented to Pickford in 1930 for the melodrama "Coquette."

The three people who inherited the Oscar — along with another honorary Oscar that Pickford received in 1975 — came into possession of the statuettes through the estate of their aunt, the second wife of actor Charles "Buddy" Rogers, who was Pickford's husband when she died in 1979.

The academy sued, arguing that because Pickford signed the agreement after receiving the honorary Oscar, and because she remained a member of the academy until her death, the 1930 Oscar fell under the rule retroactively.

In court papers, an attorney for the heirs said that under the guise of protecting the Oscar statuette, the academy uses "threats and heavy-handed litigation to bully the heirs of academy members" and has "strong-armed" heirs of Oscar winners.

The heirs were obligated to fulfill the terms of their aunt's will, which directed them to donate the proceeds of the Oscar's sale to charity, the attorney wrote.

A Los Angeles County jury sided with the academy, barring the sale.

In 2014, the academy sued Carol Surtees, daughter-in-law of the late cinematographer Robert Surtees, who won the cinematography award for the black-and-white film "The Bad and the Beautiful" in 1953.

The academy accused her of attempting to sell the statuette on eBay for $40,500. In an interview, Surtees said she mentioned to a friend that she had considered selling the Oscar for retirement funds. The friend then listed the statuette on eBay without her knowledge, she said.

Surtees and the academy reached a settlement in which she kept the Oscar and agreed not to sell it.

The statuette now sits on an end table in her living room, Surtees said.

But the academy won perhaps its strongest weapon to guard against the sale of Oscars last year, when it fought to halt the sale of the 1942 award for color art direction given to Joseph Wright for his work in the film "My Gal Sal."

After his death in 1985, the Oscar was transferred to Wright's nephew, who consigned it to Briarbrook Auctions, a Rhode Island auction house. The statuette was then bought by Nate D. Sanders Inc., a Los Angeles auction house, for $79,200.

The academy sued both Briarbrook and Nate D. Sanders Inc., alleging that the auction house intended to sell the Oscar for a higher price in Los Angeles.

The academy argued that because Wright remained an academy member until his death, his Oscar fell under the 1951 rule. The rules apply even after a statuette is inherited or otherwise given to someone else, the academy's lawyers said.

A judge agreed.

"Now we have the law on our side," Quinn said.

In the lawsuit, the academy's attorneys wrote that Nate Sanders, the owner of the auction house, was well aware of the academy's rules because he was sued years earlier for attempting to sell an Oscar awarded to Judy Garland in 1939, a miniature statuette given for her work as a juvenile actress, including her iconic role of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

The sale of that statuette, the academy wrote, was stopped.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 25, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "You can't put a price on Oscar - Even heirs of winners are bound by rules against selling the statue" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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