Academy Award

Austin Butler, Colin Farrell, Paul Mescal — viewers of the 95th Academy Awards may have their eyes on this year’s crop of Hollywood’s top leading men. But celebrities? They’re not-so-secretly lusting after the evening’s biggest prize: Oscar.

Outsized in importance, Oscar is physically quite diminutive. The statuette, cast each January at the fine art foundry Polich Tallix in Rock Tavern, New York, stands just 13 1⁄2 inches tall and weighs 8 1⁄2 pounds.

Officially named the Academy Award of Merit, the accolade’s informal moniker, Oscar, wasn’t officially adopted until 1939. Stories about the origins of the nickname vary, but one popular version has it that Margaret Herrick, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science’s librarian (and future executive director), once commented on how the bald statuette bore an uncanny resemblance to her Uncle Oscar and the name stuck.

Whoopi Goldberg’s statuette for the movie Ghost disappeared from a UPS shipping container over a decade after she won it. The statuette later turned up in a trash bin at an airport and was returned. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

True or not, what is certain is Oscar wasn’t modeled on any particular person but instead came purely from the mind of Cedric Gibbons, chief art director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. According to the Academy, in the late 1920s, Gibbons sketched a sword-clutching knight — a figurative crusader of the industry — who stood with a film reel featuring five spokes that represented the Academy’s original branches: actors, directors, producers, writers and technicians. Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley then mocked up several designs in clay and Gibbons chose his favorite version. The rest is entertainment history.

Oscar, plated in 24-karat gold, may seem priceless when under the gleaming glare of the spotlight. Hollywood insiders, however, know the iconic Tinseltown trophy, with its solid-bronze core, reportedly costs less than $500 to make but is essentially worthless. In 1950, the Academy rolled out a rule that required award winners to sign an agreement that prohibits them or their heirs from selling an Oscar before offering the organization first rights to obtain the statuette for $1.

Vivien Leigh lost her Best Actress Oscar from A Streetcar Named Desire to thieves in the 1950s. Police never recovered the original, but the Academy provided her with a replacement. (Getty)

Those created before the rule was passed and have later put up for sale have commanded astronomical sums. Vivien Leigh’s family sold her Best Actress Oscar for Gone with the Wind in 1993 for over $500,000. And Steven Spielberg paid a total of nearly $1.2 million for Bette Davis and Clark Gable’s Best Actor awards — hers for the 1938 hit Jezebel and his for 1934’s It Happened One Night. The director donated both statuettes to the Academy.

Through the years, thieves initially unaware of an Oscar’s minimal value quickly realize their naïveté. On March 8, 2000, weeks before the Academy Awards show was to air around the world, 55 Oscars vanished from a loading dock in the L.A. suburb Bell. Eleven days later, junk scavenger Willie Fulgear stumbled upon 52 of the unengraved statuettes (winners’ names are added later to ensure they remain secret) behind a dumpster at a restaurant in L.A.’s Koreatown. As compensation, Fulgear received a $50,000 reward and two seats to that year’s Academy Awards. He also got the right to brag he temporarily possessed “more Oscars than any of the movie stars.” The trucker and forklift operator who stole the Oscars walked away with nothing but light prison sentences.

A maid stole the half-sized “Oscarette” Bob Hope presented child star Margaret O’Brien for her role in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. The actress got it back four decades later after two collectors purchased it for $500 at a swap meet. (Getty)

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Best Supporting Actress award from the 1990 film Ghost to Chicago for cleaning. The box arrived, but the trophy was long gone — until a security guard found it stuffed into a garbage bin at an airport in Ontario, California. “I don’t know how in the world they would ever fence the darn thing,” said the Academy’s spokesperson at the time, John Pavlik. As for Goldberg, she vowed, “Oscar will never leave my house again.”

Stars past and present are even more protective of little Oscar. Olivia Colman, the Best Actress winner in 2019, vowed to keep the statuette “in bed with me.” More specifically, she added, “Between me and my husband. He doesn’t know yet, he won’t mind.” Lucky them!

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