Film of JFK Assassination Brings Family $16 Million


The U.S. government was ordered Tuesday to pay the heirs of amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder $16 million for seizing one of the nation’s most macabre artifacts--the 26-second film capturing President John F. Kennedy’s final moments.

An arbitration panel charged with determining the value of the film said that the figure might be on the low side. The arbiters said that they could imagine a wealthy collector paying twice that much for “the most complete recording of President Kennedy’s assassination.”

Lawyers for the Justice Department had said that the film was worth $1 million at most. But heirs to Zapruder, who died in 1970, sought $30 million as just compensation, extolling the film as a cultural and artistic “icon” worthy of comparison to da Vinci manuscripts, Van Gogh and Warhol paintings and Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball.


The arbiters hearing the case were effectively asked to place a price tag on the most enduring and tragic reminder of the sudden end to Kennedy’s Camelot mystique.

The use of the images on the Zapruder film was never at issue. The copyright belongs to the family of the late Dallas dressmaker, which has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years from videocassette sales, excerpts in such films as Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and other uses.

But the government seized the original film from the family last year, declaring the fragile, six-foot-long strip of celluloid to be a critical record of the still-controversial Kennedy assassination that should be preserved at a National Archives complex in Maryland.

Unable to agree on a price, the Zapruders and the government let a private, three-member arbitration panel conduct hearings and make a final, binding determination. The Zapruders are expected to receive a check within 30 days for the $16 million, plus roughly $800,000 in interest.

Zapruders Are Relieved

The arbitration panel’s 2-1 opinion became final two weeks ago but its release was delayed out of respect for the Kennedy family after the death of the president’s son, John F. Kennedy Jr.

The Zapruders said that they were relieved by the decision, calling it a “fair and reasonable” award. The family also said that it wants to transfer copyright control over the film to a public institution.


Meanwhile, David W. Ogden, the acting assistant attorney general who handled the case for the government, said that the decision would ensure preservation of the record of “one of the most tragic events in American history.” He did not comment on the value assigned to the film but several others familiar with the issue said they were astounded by the $16-million figure.

“I consider that to be excessive,” said John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minnesota who chaired the Assassination Records Review Board, which ordered the film’s seizure under congressional mandate.

Tunheim said his panel considered it critical to keep the film “in the hands of the American people. We didn’t want to see it cut up into individual pieces and sold off, as was threatened at one time.” But a better solution for U.S. taxpayers, he said in an interview Tuesday, would have been for the family to agree to donate the film to the government.

“To give them $16 million is obscene,” said G. Robert Blakey, a Notre Dame law professor who was chief counsel to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which investigated the Kennedy slaying. “This was just the raw film. Its value was purely symbolic.”

But as Gerald Posner, author of a book about the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, said: “What this is really about is a commentary on celebrityhood. If this were the assassination of just an ordinary president, we wouldn’t be seeing this high an award. But this film has become part of the classic American landscape surrounding Kennedy and the assassination.”

The single dissenter on the arbitration panel, former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, said that he thought the film was worth perhaps $5 million, noting that even that figure would exceed the $2.4 million paid for an original broadsheet--one of the first copies--of the Declaration of Independence, which was sold at auction in 1991.


Yet Dellinger did not question the film’s place in history.

“The vivid images captured by the Zapruder film are eminently recognizable, perhaps more so than any film footage ever captured and so much so that anyone who reflects on President Kennedy’s assassination quite likely does so instinctively from Abraham Zapruder’s vantage point,” he wrote.

In 1964, a sobbing Zapruder told investigators that the experience of filming Kennedy as the blood poured from his head that day in Dallas had been so traumatic that “I can hardly talk about it.”

The two arbiters who delivered Tuesday’s majority opinion, retired federal judge Arlin M. Adams and Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg, relied heavily on testimony the Zapruders’ lawyers presented from experts in the auction-house industry.

These industry experts predicted that the lore of Camelot, combined with the red-hot collectibles market, could drive the price of the film up to $40 million if the family were allowed to sell it on the open market.

Adams and Feinberg were swayed. “The record is clear about the special value that attaches to historical items deemed to be ‘Kennedy memorabilia.’ . . . In terms of its emotional and historical significance, the film would undoubtedly surpass previous ‘Kennedy memorabilia,’ ” they wrote.

Abraham Zapruder sold the film in 1963 for $150,000 to Time-Life Inc., which later gave it back to the family for $1. But the arbiters dismissed the government’s effort to use that transaction to gauge the film’s current worth.


“To mount an argument using variables like [consumer price index] and ‘1999 dollars’ is to fail to understand the historical value of the Zapruder film as it has developed over time,” the panel said.

“Simply stated, the Zapruder film is one of a kind,” the panel said. “There are no comparisons.”

The Zapruders, led by Abraham Zapruder’s son, Henry, a Washington attorney, and represented by attorney Robert S. Bennett, who also represents President Clinton, played up repeatedly the unique aspects of the film’s 494 images in the legal filings that preceded Tuesday’s announcement, calling the footage “perhaps the most important piece of criminal evidence ever to come to market.”

The family said that “many would want to own the Film in the hope of being the one who ultimately solves the mysteries associated with the assassination.”

They even argued the film’s artistic merits.

Gauging by da Vinci

“The colors are beautiful,” wrote one appraiser. “The ever-familiar hues of the tragedy--the pink of the first lady’s outfit, the red of the wounds, the green of the grass, the bluish-black of the presidential limousine--would not have been better if selected by Warhol or Matisse.”

One good measure of the film’s market value, the family said, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, a scientific manuscript bought at auction in 1994 by Bill Gates for $30.8 million.


But government lawyers ridiculed such arguments, saying that it was unreasonable “to force the American taxpayer to pay for the camera original Zapruder film as if it were the market equal of the greatest works of Van Gogh, Picasso or Leonardo da Vinci.”


Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson contributed to this story.