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"We Know We're Right," says EG Auctioneer Sued by Academy for Selling Oscar

Thompson said extensive legal research was conducted before the June 23 auction to ensure the 1942 statuette, awarded to Joseph Wright for color art direction in "My Gal Sal," would not run afoul of Academy rules instituted in the 1950s.

A spotlight shined on East Greenwich last week when Briarbrook Auctions sold a 1942 Oscar for $79,200. And now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has ensured the lights will stay on by filing a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and demanding the proceeds — plus the statuette.

The auctioneer, Nanci Thompson, reached by phone just after she stepped off a plane on Wednesday, said she found out about the lawsuit at 11 p.m. Tuesday night and hadn't even had a chance to talk to her lawyer.

But she said she knew the lawsuit was without merit.

"They don't have a valid basis for their demands at all," she said. "We feel fine at this point. We know we're right."

Thompson said extensive legal research was conducted before the auction to ensure the statuette, awarded to Joseph Wright for color art direction in "My Gal Sal," would not run afoul of Academy rules, instituted in 1951.

The rules require any award recipient to sign an agreement that the Academy must be offered the Oscar for $10 before any sale, which essentially ensures they remain in the Academy's or heirs' hands forever, eliminating any possibility of a market for Oscars.

It also suggest that actors who did not sign agreements after the new bylaws were adopted can rightfully sell Oscars before the bylaws went into effect.

But in the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the Academy claims that it still has a right to be offered the statue for $10 and said that lawyers representing the Academy tried to contact Briarbrook by phone repeatedly and was hung up on.

The Academy apparently was calling at the same time the actual auction was taking place, which ended up selling to an unidentified buyer.

The Wright Oscar wouldn't be the first to get sold on the open market. A slew of early Oscars have sold at auction, including Orson Welles 1942 Oscar for Citizen Kane, which went for $862,000 in 2011. Then there's the 1943 Best Director Oscar for Casablanca, which Magician David Copperfield keeps in his bedroom after buying it for $232,000 in 2003. 

And numerous others have sold, some to avid Oscar collectors, others to people like Steven Spielberg and Kevin Spacey, who promptly donated them back to the Academy. There's also a black market of post-1950 Oscars.

As a veteran art director with over 100 major motion pictures to his credit, Wright won eighteen nominations and two Oscars (both won in 1942).  His credits include such box office hits as “Guys and Dolls”, “ Porgy and Bess”, “Flower Drum Song”, “Oklahoma”, “My Gal Sal”, and “ Days of Wine and Roses.  The statuette was presented at the 15th. Annual Academy Awards ceremony held March 4, 1943 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The statuette was passed on to family after Wright's death and had been kept by an unidentified person in Cranston, RI, Thompson said.

The Academy has routinely sued people before and after Oscar sales, with varying degrees of success. Legal scholars in 2005 told Forbes that the Academy's legal argument might not be very watertight.

"The one-page agreement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences enters into with the recipients of Oscar awards raises enough tricky questions of property and contract law to pique the interest of property and contract scholars,” Richard A. Epstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said.

Early estimates for the Oscar were pegged between $5,000 and $30,000 but bids rapidly pushed the price up once the auction opened up. A smattering of locals and interested potential buyers filled the Varnum Armory in East Greenwich and other buyers queued up on the auctionzip online site. 

Thompson, who said the buyer's name would be recognizable if released, sounded unfazed on Wednesday.

"There's nothing new about this," she said. "Plenty of pre 1950s Oscars have sold over the last few years."

The full lawsuit is attached to this article.

Class of 98 July 02, 2014 at 03:47 PM
Briarbrook Auctions is in East Greenwich. And the item was sold here. Why is the lawsuit taking place in LA? Don't they have to file suit here?

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