A Big Legal Battle Over Garland's Mini Award

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The case of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vs. Michael Sidney Luft may be one of the strangest, most convoluted legal tangles the academy has encountered yet in its fierce attempts to control the golden image of Oscar. The fracas has all the elements of a quirky potboiler, right down to an undercover sting operation.

And even though this isn't exactly a whodunit, you could certainly call this story a what-is-it: In short, is Judy Garland's 1940 Oscar, which Sid Luft, her former husband, has been peddling around town, real or fake?

The question is crucial because it could determine whether the academy can stop the sale. Since 1950, the industry organization has required Oscar winners to sign an agreement pledging, in effect, to keep their awards off the market. If recipients or their heirs want to sell their Oscars, they have been required to offer the academy first right of refusal in exchange for $10. (That amount was dropped to $1 in the 1980s, so that people would understand the money was just a token amount and not a reflection of the Oscar's actual worth.)

So if the shrimp-sized Oscar honoring Garland for "The Wizard of Oz" were deemed real--in those days the academy awarded smaller Oscars to juvenile performers--then Luft could sell it, because the statuette would have predated the winner's agreements giving the academy control over its sale. But if it was a duplicate produced after the agreements went into effect, as the academy claimed, then the academy would have control.

Luft's attempts to mine Oscar gold have triggered eight years of on-and-off litigation involving three court judgments and two statuettes. The legal fracas may have ended this month when a federal judge ordered Luft to cough up the juvenile Oscar in his possession, even if it's a duplicate.

Does the academy really expect to get it? The question makes academy executive director Bruce Davis laugh. "The answer is yes, I think we'll get it," he says, "but I don't think it will be easy."

From Luft's perspective, the case is far from clear. He says it "has an aura of, mystique is one word, somebody's hiding something is another word, which could be me. Maybe I'm not giving you all the facts. But I haven't got them because I'm confused myself."

It all began in December 1993, when Christie's scheduled an auction of memorabilia that was to include Garland's pint-size Oscar. Because the academy didn't begin requiring signed contracts until 1950, a decade after that Oscar was awarded, the organization assumed there was nothing it could do about the sale. Until, that is, academy officials received a tip suggesting they watch a "Today Show" broadcast displaying items about to go on the block.

"Sure enough, it wasn't her Oscar," Davis says. "The one she got was quite distinctive, as seen in the picture of her with Mickey Rooney. The one she had had a very tall base.... The one Christie's was offering was not a tall base. We were scratching our heads, and until that moment it didn't occur to us that a duplicate existed."

The academy scoured its files and found a 1958 letter from the publicity firm Rogers & Cowan saying that Garland's Oscar had been lost and asking for a replacement at Garland's expense. The academy obliged and asked the performer to sign a first-right-of-refusal agreement covering the duplicate Oscar and any others that might be in her possession. (Garland was married to Luft from 1952 to 1965.)

When the academy found the paperwork, its lawyers shot off letters demanding the sale be stopped. Christie's dropped out because it wasn't interested in selling a duplicate anyway, but Luft battled the academy in court. He argued that the publicist's letter was forged by somebody in the firm who wanted a statuette for him- or herself, and that Garland had never signed a winner's agreement because she'd never lost the original or received a duplicate. But Luft can't explain why the Oscar he offered Christie's appears to be different from the one Garland and Rooney are clutching in the famous photograph.

"When I first saw [Judy's] Oscar it didn't have a long base," Luft says. "It had a short base, so that's part of the mystery. Although the picture shows Mickey and Judy with a [tall-base] Oscar, she might have had to send that unit back to have them inscribe the plaque."

At any rate, the court ruled in the academy's favor in 1995, declaring that the Oscar was a duplicate. And Luft was ordered to return the statuette to the academy. He countered that he needed to hold onto it because he planned to appeal. Time went by and no appeal was filed, so the academy called Luft's lawyer and asked for the award. His lawyer said that Luft had already given the statuette to his daughter, Lorna.

"In fact, that's what we would have done, put it in the hands of an heir who would have taken care of it," Davis says. "We said if we could confirm that Miss Luft has it, that would be fine. But she was out of the country, so we called the lawyer back and said, 'We're going to charge him with contempt of court if he doesn't give it back.' Then we got a call from Miss Luft's lawyer saying it was just delivered. He'd lied not only to us but to his own lawyer."

In May 2000, another Garland Oscar came on the market. This time the statuette, described as Garland's "original" Oscar, showed up on Nate's Autographs Web site with a price tag of $3 million and Sid Luft named as the source. When a fresh round of litigation ensued, Luft argued that this second statuette was a fake. (A court had already declared the original Oscar was subject to the winner's agreement.)

The academy got a temporary restraining order against the sale. But at a hearing, Luft said he didn't know whether Garland's original Oscar even existed, so the court denied the academy's request for an injunction. That inspired the academy to be more resourceful.

"Quite simply, we didn't think he was telling the truth," academy attorney David Quinto says, "and when somebody is willing to appear for deposition and say they're telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth and then lie to you, you've got to be creative."

In July 2000, the academy hired investigator Ronald Foster to pose as a memorabilia dealer hunting for Oscar statuettes. He approached Marcia Tysseling, the owner of a Hollywood memorabilia shop called Star Wares, who told him she'd heard that Luft was trying to sell Garland's Oscar. Foster said he was interested, so she acted as liaison, sending him a document that described the statuette as "the very Oscar that was received by Judy Garland."

Foster said he wanted an expert to appraise it, so in August, an appraiser hired by the academy verified the Oscar's authenticity in a meeting attended by Luft, Foster and Tysseling. With that evidence, the academy went back to court and obtained a second temporary restraining order against Luft.

This time, the academy argued that the award for sale was the original, which had somehow resurfaced. The academy said it had rights to the sale because it was covered by the 1958 agreement signed by Garland when she received her duplicate.

In a sworn declaration, Luft said he'd never authorized Nate Sanders of Nate's Autographs to sell Garland's Oscar on the Web, and that he believed the August meeting was being held so that he could meet a "high-profile producer who was interested in viewing an Oscar statuette and producing a film about my life with Judy Garland."

In an interview, Luft said the Oscar he brought to the meeting was a fake fashioned by a friend to cheer him up when he was in the hospital a decade ago. That didn't sway the Superior Court, which declared in January that this Oscar was the original, ordering Luft to hand it to the academy. Meanwhile, the academy had filed suit in federal court saying that even if it were true that the statuette was a phony as Luft claimed, it still fell under the academy's control, because the imitation infringed on the academy's copyright.

The academy won the federal suit on March 11, and Luft was ordered to give the academy any copies he might have. Asked whether he plans to surrender the statuette, Luft seemed undecided.

"This is harassment," he said. "They were groping and this all started with them signing Judy's name to the bylaws agreement, and if I may say so, I have all my marbles and you can't fool me. They want to settle this thing, and I've had enough of their nonsense, as I call it. In all probability I might [give the statuette to the academy]. I don't know if I want to take them on some more."

Luft's claims of harassment don't hold sway with Davis.

"Talk to Lorna," Davis says. "Ask if she thinks we're harassing her father. The two daughters of Judy Garland think he's behaving in a beastly way." The daughters, Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli, couldn't be reached for comment, but Luft himself acknowledged that he and Lorna have been at loggerheads over Garland's Oscar.

"Lorna wanted it," Luft says. "As a matter of fact, Lorna set me up at a luncheon and had Bruce Davis next to her table, and he testified at this first trial that he was privy to our conversation. Can you imagine my own daughter setting me up? I said to Lorna I needed the money. She said, why didn't you come to me if you needed money?"

Why all this sturm und drang over a little statuette? The academy considers such litigation key to protecting its claim to Hollywood's most valuable and marketable resource: image.

"If you could buy a replica in stores and they didn't protect it, it wouldn't keep the dignity it has," says Robert Osborne, Oscar historian, Hollywood Reporter columnist and Turner Classic Movies host. Notes Davis: "It is a kind of romantic notion that there ought to be some small class of things, even in Hollywood, that aren't for sale, that you have to earn rather than buy them."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°