Oscar courts Pickford over sale

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The fate of Mary Pickford's 1930 Oscar for best actress soon will be in the hands of a Los Angeles jury as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences heads to court today to stop the sale of the statuette.

The Oscar was awarded to "America's sweetheart" for her performance in 1929's "Coquette," the first best actress honor given for a performance in a "talkie." The statuette is in possession of the estate of Beverly Rogers, the second wife of Charles "Buddy" Rogers, who was married to Pickford for 40 years until her death in 1979.

When Buddy Rogers died in 1999, Beverly Rogers inherited his estate, which included the 1930 Oscar as well as an honorary Academy Award given to Pickford in 1976 and Buddy Rogers' 1986 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

At the center of the dispute is a handwritten will ordering that the 1930 statuette be auctioned off, with proceeds donated to charity; the Academy's maintains that by its longheld policy, it has the right to buy back any Oscar offered for sale for $10. (The amount since has been reduced to $1.)

When Beverly Rogers died in 2007, a handwritten will indicated that Pickford's 1930 award should be put up for auction, with proceeds benefiting the Buddy and Beverly Rogers Foundation and the Buddy Rogers Symphony for young musicians in Palm Springs. The two honorary awards would remain with the estate.

"The will says they are obligated to sell the Oscar and donate to specific charities," said the estate's attorney Mark Passin.

The Academy claims that such a sale would be illegal under terms of a "right of first refusal" agreement Pickford signed when she received her honorary Oscar.

Since 1950, AMPAS has required recipients of its coveted golden statuettes to sign an agreement during the Oscar ceremony, immediately after accepting the prize. The agreement gives the Academy first dibs to buy the statuette back for $10 should the winner, or his or her heirs, choose to get rid of it.

Although Pickford received her Oscar before that Academy bylaw, when she received her 1976 honorary Oscar she signed the recipient agreement, which AMPAS said is retroactive to the 1930 award.

For the Academy, the intention has been never to treat the Oscar as an article of trade. Instead, it is a replica of the original, which is a federally protected trademark registered under copyright law as an "unpublished" work of art.

AMPAS has challenged aggressively any attempt to copy the Oscar or sell a statuette, believing such sales devalue Oscar's worth.

"The Oscar should go to the best performer, not the highest bidder," said longtime AMPAS outside counsel David Quinto of Los Angeles' Quinn Emmanuel.

The Academy usually is successful in stopping such sales, but there are exceptions.

In 2001, Steven Spielberg was revealed as the anonymous bidder who paid $578,000 for Bette Davis' Oscar for 1938's "Jezebel." Spielberg, a supporter of the Academy's policy, donated the statuette to the organization. He later bought Davis' Oscar for 1935's "Dangerous" for $207,500 and paid $607,500 for Clark Gable's best actor prize for 1934's "It Happened One Night."

Others have paid high prices but not done the same. Michael Jackson paid $1.54 million for the best picture Oscar for 1939's "Gone With the Wind," and magician David Copperfield bought for less than $250,000 the Oscar awarded to helmer Michael Curtiz for 1942's "Casablanca."

Rogers' estate estimates that Pickford's Oscar could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars because the actress was considered Hollywood royalty and was a lifelong founding member of the Academy and the United Artists studio. Were such an auction to happen, though, most of the proceeds would go to legal fees, according to Passin, of Santa Monica's Dreier Stein & Kahan.

"Instead of selling it, the Academy has made it loud and clear they will spend a fortune — and we have to spend a fortune — on legal costs and not give the money to charity," he said.

Quinto said AMPAS has tried to work with Rogers' estate, offering to donate "a couple hundred-thousand dollars" to its charities. "They turned it down," he said.

According to AMPAS' suit, the estate demanded $500,000 from the Academy, which the organization refused to pay. (partialdiff)
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