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Pawnshop Owner in Spotlight Over Saroyan's 1943 Oscar

March 25, 1991|GARY WOLF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Max Kaplan never believed he'd get an Academy Award. Kaplan is not even in the movie business. He owns the Mission Jewelry & Loan Co., a pawnshop in San Francisco's tough Mission District.

But Kaplan now owns an Oscar--William Saroyan's 1943 best screenplay award for "The Human Comedy."

The Oscar is displayed prominently in the pawnshop window, surrounded by used jewelry, cameras and musical instruments. A handwritten sign taped to the statuette reads, "Will the original owners please redeem."

Last May, a San Jose man named Fortunato Velasquez Jr. left Saroyan's Oscar at Kaplan's pawnshop as collateral on a $250 loan. Workers at the pawnshop say Velasquez claimed to be a friend of the Saroyan family. They haven't seen him since.

Kaplan says Saroyan's Oscar is not for sale: "We want to get it back to the original owner."

When Saroyan died in 1981, all of the novelist-screenwriter's memorabilia were left to the William Saroyan Foundation, a San Francisco foundation dedicated to preserving his legacy.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not like to see its icons in pawnshops. Since 1951, Academy Award winners have been required to sign a promise to sell the Oscar back to the academy if they don't want it anymore. Nevertheless, the gold-plated statuettes regularly turn up for public sale. In 1988, the best picture Oscar for "An American in Paris" was sold by Malcolm Willits of the Collectors Bookstore in Hollywood for $15,760.

"If (Saroyan's Oscar) is in fair condition, I would say anywhere from 10 to $15,000. The category isn't that much--you're not dealing with a star or director--but you're dealing with a famous writer," Willits said.

Robert Setrakian, president of the Saroyan Foundation, says it will try to retrieve the Oscar from Kaplan this week. The foundation says that the statuette was stolen from the San Francisco home of Saroyan's sister, Cossette, who died last year at the age of 92. The foundation doesn't know when the Oscar was taken.

"I called Mr. Kaplan and told him that there was no doubt that we own this thing," Setrakian said.

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