TV Academy Sues to Stop Auction of Valerie Harper's 'Mary Tyler Moore' Emmy Statuettes

Mary Tyler Moore-Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper-Photofest still - H 2020

Beginning Friday, Julien's Auctions in Beverly Hills will be unloading more than 900 pieces of entertainment memorabilia as part of its "Hollywood: Legends & Explorers" auction — but that offering will be four pieces lighter if the Television Academy has anything to say about it. 

On Tuesday, the Academy sued Julien's arguing that four Emmy Award statuettes won by the late Valerie Harper in the 1970s for her iconic turns as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda can't be sold. It claims that while winners can keep the statute for life, and their heirs can inherit the shiny, gold award, it's the Academy that actually owns it and it merely "lends a copy of the Emmy Statuette to the Emmy winner to symbolize and honor his or her achievement."

The Academy argues it holds the copyright to the award and therefore "has the exclusive right to distribute or authorize distribution of the work 'to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership.'" It's suing for copyright infringement, conversion and replevin, which is lawyer-speak for arguing that the Emmy awards should be turned over to the Academy until the court declares a rightful owner.

"The Television Academy retains title and has a policy that copies of the Statuettes cannot be sold," writes attorney Eric Bakewell of Venable in the complaint, which is posted below. "That policy is well-established and well-known throughout the Television Academy, to the Television Academy's members, and in the television industry. The policy is conveyed to Emmy winners, and it would be unfathomable that any winner in a high profile acting category (much less an individual who has won multiple awards in a high profile acting category) would be unaware of the policy."

Harper died in August 2019 following a long battle with cancer and her estate gave the awards to the auction house. The Academy maintains that since 1971 it's had a policy that when an Emmy recipient dies, that person's heir can choose to keep it or return it to the Academy. Starting in 1978, it attached a physical notice of that policy to each statuette awarded at the primetime Emmys.

The statuettes at issue were awarded to Harper in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975 — and Julien's argues the Academy is trying to retroactively apply its policy to those statuettes.

"Julien's Auctions, and many other auction houses, have sold dozens of Emmy statuettes at auction without incident for decades," says the company's president and CEO Darren Julien in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "It appears that the Television Academy is now attempting to enforce new rules retroactively. Those rules are totally at odds with their own earlier policies and practices. The owners of the Emmy statuettes (in this case the Estate of Valerie Harper) were not told of and did not agree to any ownership restrictions that the Television Academy is now trying to impose. Julien's has always honored valid obligations and restrictions. These are neither. Julien's intends to oppose this meritless lawsuit from the Television Academy."

The starting bid for the statuettes was $1,250 and each of them has already received multiple online bids — with one of the awards currently going for $7,000. While Harper's Emmys may attract quite a bit of attention amid this dispute, the auction's main attraction is a space suit from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which will go for at least $160,000 based on bids entered so far.

Of course this isn't the first high-profile award to launch a legal battle amid its bidding war. In fact, just a few years ago the Academy sued Heritage Auctions in an attempt to stop the sale of Whitney Houston's Emmy for outstanding individual performance in a variety or musical in 1986 for "Saving All My Love for You," which she had performed at the Grammys. There, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson issued a temporary restraining order that the parties subsequently agreed should be converted into a preliminary injunction. The Academy dropped its suit a few weeks later. 

The Academy on Wednesday filed an ex parte application for a TRO in the dispute over Harper's award, but it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.