Fate of Mary Pickford's Oscar in court's hands

Suit seeks to stop sale of 1930 statuette 

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 Monday 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 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it is a replica of the original, which is a federally protected trademark registered under copyright law as an "unpublished" work of art.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."

Kevin Spacey also won an auction, paying $156,875 for composer George Stoll's Oscar for 1945's "Anchors Aweigh," which Spacey donated to the Academy.

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.

In Passin's view, the recipient agreement is not enforceable because the Academy claims it is covered under a doctrine that applies to real estate, known as a "covenant running with the land." In most cases, the covenant specifically states restriction for use and binds the next owner, including heirs, to that restriction.

"Even though people in the future didn't sign the contract, it's attached to the land," Passin said. "The Academy claims this restriction is attached to the Oscar statue and that every generation is subject to the restrictions."

Quinto said the agreement is very clear.

"If you agree to sell me your car and we enter into a contract, you can't leave it in a will to somebody else," he said. "You already have a contract to buy it -- that came first."

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.

Passin said his clients' hands are tied. As executor of the will, Rogers' relative Kim Boyer must do what is required. In addition to the covenant running with the land, the estate questions the legitimacy of the signature on Pickford's agreement.

"We contend that it's not Mary Pickford's signature on the document," Passin said. "We have handwriting experts that will testify and say it's not her signature."

It's something Beverly Rogers questioned when she was alive. She even indicated her suspicions in her 2005 will, writing: "The Academy has a paper they claim is valid when (Pickford) received her 2nd Oscar in the 1970s but was not signed by her!! They have no valid claim, and these funds are to be used by those in the acting business and symphony."

In 2003, the Academy responded to Rogers' suspicions, indicating the agreement was not something "hurriedly cobbled together to take advantage of an elderly lady," but rather a contract that has been enforced since 1950.

"Miss Pickford was proposed for the award by your late husband, who lobbied energetically for it, and who made sure that the standard agreement was signed by the proposed recipient as required," AMPAS executive director Bruce Davis wrote to Rogers.

Quinto said the signature issue is a non-argument.

"It's irrelevant whether she signed it," he said. "All she had to do was agree to enter into the contract -- clearly, she did that.

"Mary Pickford was a founder of the Academy and one of the people who voted to approve the design of the Oscar," Quinto added. "Clearly, her Oscar should be returned to the foundation."