Film Academy Sues Over Possible Sale of 'Deer Hunter' Oscar (Exclusive)

Oscar Statue Portrait 2011
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Oscar Statues on display at the Time Warner Center in New York February 25, 2010 during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "Meet the Oscars, New York " exhibition presented by Kodak. The exhibit will be open to the public until March 7, 2010 the day of the 82nd Academy Awards.

On the night of the Academy Awards, all the nominees want to go home with an Oscar statuette. But what happens when the statuette is damaged?

That's what happened in 1979 to Aaron Rochin, who won an Oscar for his sound work on the Robert De Niro classic The Deer Hunter. Unfortunately, Rochin's statuette was "blemished," so the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences replaced it and took back the original for repairs. But at the statuette facility, Rochin's original blemished Oscar was then stolen and never found.

Flash forward more than 30 years to last September, when a guy named James Dunne allegedly offered for sale on eBay a rare Oscar statuette. Is it the same as the stolen Rochin award?

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The answer might come from a lawsuit filed on Monday in Washington federal court. Throughout the years, the Film Academy has been quite litigious in protecting its famous statuettes. Oscar winners are required to sign a contract giving the Academy a right to buy their award for $1 if they ever want to sell. And the organization has been diligent in snapping up Oscars that fall into the wrong hands from years before the contracts were required. 

But this case is truly unique.

Last September, Dunne advertised for sale an item he described as a "Rare Pre-1950 Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences OSCAR Statue Award!"

But that doesn't mean it actually was pre-1950. Dunne might have just been reading certain information incorrectly. He described the statuette as bearing the identification number of "1928."

Dunne allegedly ended the eBay sale prematurely. The Academy suspects that he did so in fear he would be discovered.

Instead, Dunne is charged with having sold the statuette to another man named Edgard Francisco for $25,000.

The Academy learned of the sale and contacted Dunne, who purportedly explained that he originally acquired the statuette from a moving sale or an estate sale. Francisco was also contacted, and he said that after his purchase, he had taken the statuette to a collector, who said it was a counterfeit. Realizing this, Francisco said he got Dunne to give him a partial $15,000 refund and then discarded the statuette.

But the Academy isn't satisfied and has grown suspicious over the suggestion of a statuette "collector" out there and the fact that Dunne and Francisco wouldn't share their communications with each other with the Academy.

It turns out that "1928" also was the number used on Rochin's stolen statuette. That's not to say that the statuettes are one and the same, but the evidence certainly suggests that might be the case.

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In the meantime, the Academy is now suing Dunne and Francisco -- and saying that whether or not the statuette is real, the two are liable for damages.

According to the complaint, "If the Statuette was a counterfeit, defendants have infringed the Academy's copyright in the © 'Oscar' ® statuette by selling and distributing a counterfeit statuette. If the statuette was authentic, defendants have committed conversion by asserting dominion over the Academy's property and interfering with the Academy's right to possession of its property."

Whether the defendants would be in better position on a real or fake statuette is another question -- probably a good one for a law school exam. The Academy is demanding at least $25,000 in damages for the "reasonable value of the converted Statuette" and actual damages or statutory damages -- up to $150,000 -- for willful copyright infringement.

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