Sale of $3,395 O.J. Simpson Statues Shows Lots of Brass : Celebrity: Marketing of bronze figures of murder suspect is perfectly legal but poses ethical questions.

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

First there were the trading cards. Then last week the commemorative coins went on the market. And now there is the $3,395 statue.

The efforts to make money from O.J. Simpson's notoriety--some of them by Simpson himself--are taking place in the vast moral and legal valley known as profiteering, a landscape where phrases like "pre-indictment price" are part of the lexicon.

One example of the remarkable money-raising activities is a 21-inch-high, 30-pound bronze sculpture of "The Juice." Wearing his trademark No. 32 jersey, Simpson is depicted holding a football on his hip, his helmet at his feet, his autograph at the base. The statue, cast in Oregon, was advertised for sale this week in numerous media outlets. Simpson will receive an unspecified percentage of the revenues.

Simpson--facing massive legal bills and dwindling personal assets--not only approved the project, but while in jail has viewed three renderings of the sculpture and made suggestions for changes.

There is no legal impediment to Simpson engaging in such ventures while in jail. Still, some question the ethics of turning notoriety--enhanced by accusations of murder--into an entrepreneurial opportunity. There is also the prospect that if Simpson is convicted, relatives of his alleged victims might be able to recover some of his profits under a state law that attempts to limit the ability of criminals to make money from their crimes.

Author John Gregory Dunne, who wrote a long article on the Simpson case for the New York Review of Books, said he was appalled. "Shame seems not to have crossed the ken of anyone involved in this case," he said.

Steve Brill, president of Court TV, which is televising the Simpson case, also expressed indignation and said his network has declined to advertise two other Simpson-related products as a matter of principle. "The question is, do you want to be involved in the general coarsening of our society?" he said.

The arrival of the Simpson statues is hardly surprising in a society "obsessed by titillation," where celebrity has become more and more an end in itself, said David Halberstam, the author of highly acclaimed books on politics and sports. "O.J. is now a bigger celebrity. . . . In my lifetime, we've never had an accused murderer of this fame. There is inevitable . . . exploitation."

Tucker Freeman Smith, editor of Collector's Sportslook, a Congers, N.Y., magazine that tracks the prices of sports memorabilia, acknowledged that "the way everyone has cashed in on O.J. is kind of gross, from the network news to the street vendors. But people have a right to make a dollar; we live in a capitalist society."

More than 1,000 of the sculptures, introduced earlier this week, have been ordered already by people from as far away as Tokyo, according to Lenward Holness, president of Collectibles, Rarities, Arts and Special Holdings (CRASH), the West Los Angeles company that is marketing the statues.

Simpson's jailhouse evaluation of the sculpture design included his suggestion that the jawline be firmed up, Holness said. Simpson's friends A.C. Cowlings, Robert Kardashian and Paula Barbieri also added suggestions.

Holness said he planned to give the former football star the 32nd statue as a Christmas present this week, although Simpson would not be allowed to keep it with him in his jail cell.

If Holness sells 25,000 of the statues, as he anticipates, that would mean gross revenues of $84.9 million. Holness declined to say what the accused double murderer's share of the take will be. Simpson's business lawyer Leroy B. Taft declined to return calls. Reached in Texas where he is vacationing, Simpson's agent, Mike Gilbert, said he did not recall the terms of the deal.

Holness defended the ethics of the sculpture project, saying it had been planned eight months before Simpson was accused of the June 12 murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.

"My personal feeling is that it is a business transaction and O.J. Simpson is the greatest running back of all time, and until he is proven guilty he is innocent," Holness said.

While not endorsing the venture, Los Angeles defense lawyer Harland W. Braun said it was important to remember that Simpson "is a man who has spent his life exploiting his public image. He is simply continuing to merchandise his public image."

Entertainment law expert Lionel S. Sobel of Loyola Law School said that Simpson's share of such a venture normally would range from 5% to 10% of the gross retail sales. But he said the percentage could be higher for the statue because of the unusual circumstances in which it is being marketed. Also, because the sculpture is priced so high, "there is a larger margin of gross profit built in than there would be on sweat shirts or autographed footballs."

If Simpson is ultimately convicted, his profits might be erased by by California's "Son of Sam" law, passed by the Legislature in response to outrage about criminals who made money by selling their stories. A New York law of this type was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. However, California's statute, which has never been tested in court, is sufficiently different that it might withstand challenges, Sobel said.

Although Simpson has a legal right to a share of the proceeds of any merchandise marketed with his likeness, he has decided not to pursue claims against the bevy of free-lance entrepreneurs selling O.J. Simpson T-shirts, cups and Pogs (with "guilty" and "not guilty" sides) at Southland venues such as the Criminal Courts Building, according to informed sources. The sources said that Simpson's lawyers had concluded that the likelihood of any substantial return from lawsuits was likely to be outweighed by the expense of pursuing such cases.

During the summer, Simpson, fulfilling a contract he signed before being arrested, autographed football cards in his jail cell that were sold to collectors around the country, according to memorabilia experts.

Shortly after Simpson was arrested, prices on his cards rapidly escalated, but in recent months there has been "a steady decline to the pre-indictment price," said Smith of Sportslook. "His rookie card from the 1970 Topps football set is currently trading for $175. We saw it go up to $400-$500 in L.A. and Buffalo. Everything got out of whack in L.A."

Last week, a special coin commemorating Simpson's best year with the Buffalo Bills went on the market. Simpson has approved the design and marketing of the coin, which hails his 1973 performance, when he became the first runner in the history of the National Football League to gain more than 2,000 yards in one season. The Buffalo, N.Y., and Provo, Utah, businessmen who are jointly marketing the coins said nearly all of the 6,000 produced have already been sold.

Richard Jakubczak, 61, who previously had coins minted to commemorate the Bills' four consecutive American Football Conference championships, said he and Simpson first discussed the project when they ran into one another at Buffalo Airport in August, 1993, but nothing came of it. The venture got started in earnest after the two men discussed it again last January at the inaugural ball of Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello.

"All of a sudden, problems started in June," Jakubczak said, referring to the murders. "We forget about the coin. Who wants to do a coin in relationship to all the problems O.J. is having?"

But last August, Jakubczak said, Simpson's agent Gilbert called him, flew to Buffalo and told him that Simpson still wanted to do the coin. "I was flabbergasted. I said wouldn't it hurt the situation, wouldn't it be sensationalizing?"

Ultimately, Jakubczak said, a deal was struck after he convinced Gilbert that it would be inadvisable to produce unlimited numbers of the coins: "If we do a limited issue, we'll have a coin that will be in demand from now to doomsday."

The silver-dollar-size coin was designed by Blair Buswell, who sculpted the bust of Simpson that is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. One side of the coin has a drawing of Simpson and the words "O.J. Simpson and the Electric Company," the nickname of the Bills offensive linemen who paved the way for his record-breaking runs. His 1973 statistics appear on the other side.

The coins are selling for $69.95 each in gold and $34.95 in silver, Jardine said. Additionally, 100 editions of a special boxed set containing a one-ounce silver coin and a one-ounce silver coin layered in 24-karat gold were produced and are being sold for $400.

Simpson is receiving royalties from the sale of the coins, but Jardine declined to say how much.

The first 32 sets were delivered to Simpson so that he could give them to friends as Christmas gifts, Jardine said. The balance of the sets sold out immediately, Jakubczak said, as have almost all 6,000 of the individually numbered coins.

"I would have bought the coins no matter what," said Tom Hacker, 45, a customer in Jakubczak's Select Stamp and Coin shop in Buffalo. "He's a Hall of Famer; he played for the Bills. It has nothing to do with the murders."

"The coin is so hot it's unbelievable," Hacker said, referring to the fact that the coins already have a resale value of triple their original price in Buffalo.

But Hacker, a Buffalo native, said he has no plans to turn a quick buck on his coin set: "This will stay in my family. This will be passed on to my son and daughter."

Another purchaser, Democratic New York state Sen. William Stachowski, said he bought the coins "because I've always been a football fan, because of the football accomplishments, not because of the off-the-field stuff. Any time I've been in the company of O.J. Simpson, he's been a real gentleman."

Statue marketer Holness said several well-known people have purchased the Simpson statue, but he declined to divulge their names or that of a San Francisco man who purchased a dozen, citing privacy concerns. However, he arranged a telephone interview with Betty J. Adams of Dayton, Ohio, who said she bought one of the sculptures for her 35-year-old son, whom she described as a longtime football fan and admirer of Simpson.

"I figure this will kind of make up to my son for not taking a picture of him shaking hands with O.J." when they met on the streets of Barcelona during the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, the mother said. "O.J. was a very nice guy from what I could tell."

As for the morality of marketing the statue now, Adams said: "Hey, (Simpson) needs the money. His defense team is expensive. He's going to be dead broke if he doesn't do something."

Times staff writers Helene Elliott and Tim Rutten contributed to this story.

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