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2 Oscars Back in Fold : Director Lewis Milestone's Awards Vanished in 1978

September 05, 1991|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirteen years after they were reported stolen from the home of renowned movie director Lewis Milestone, two historic Oscars--one of them given out during the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929--are in the hands of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

During their absence, the Oscars did not travel far. For more than a decade they sat on a night stand under a picture of Milestone in the home of a North Hollywood man named Christopher Riordan, who describes the late director as a good friend, "like the father I never had."

Riordan, a retired actor and dancer, says he did not know the statuettes had been reported stolen. He relinquished them Tuesday after the Academy, tipped off by a costume designer that the Oscars were being offered for sale at film memorabilia stores around town, filed suit seeking their return.

"It's a great triumph," exclaimed actor Karl Malden, president of the Academy and an Oscar winner. "You realize that one of them is one of the first ones ever given, and we cherish them, we baby them. They're ours and we'd hate for anyone to go out pawning them."

So the case of the missing Milestone Oscars is closed. But who stole them, and how they came into Riordan's possession, may forever remain a mystery.

The Oscars, one for a 1928 war comedy called "Two Arabian Knights" and the other for the 1930 classic "All Quiet on the Western Front," are considered quite valuable. Although the Academy--which is vehemently opposed to the sale of its awards--lists their worth at the $350 cost to manufacture them, independent dealers say the statuettes could fetch between $25,000 and $35,000 each at auction.

The 24-karat gold plated statue, which depicts a "machine-age" man holding a crusader's sword and standing atop a film canister, has not changed since Milestone received his first at a low-key dinner ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929. But there are some differences.

For starters, the Milestone Oscars weren't even called Oscars; that name did not come into use until the mid-1930s. While today's Oscars are 13 inches tall, including the metal base, Milestone's statuettes have marble bases and are 11 1/2 inches tall. And Milestone's name is hidden, engraved on a medallion underneath the base.

The awards remained with Milestone for nearly half a century. But on Nov. 4, 1978, with Milestone aging and ill, his housekeeper discovered them missing from the director's home on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills.

"This is very strange as we have found no other objects to be missing," Milestone's lawyer wrote in a letter to the Academy at the time. "You can imagine that this was quite a blow to Mr. Milestone, who would very much like to have them replaced."

Said Malden, who had been friendly with Milestone: "He was terribly hurt."

The Academy replaced the statuettes, according to Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis. When Milestone died in 1980 at age 84, he willed the replacement Oscars to the Directors Guild.

By that time, Riordan said in an interview Wednesday, he had the originals.

The 53-year-old Riordan said he was given the Oscars by someone he would not identify who is now dead. He said the gift-giver told him that Milestone wanted him to have the statuettes.

"Both Mr. and Mrs. Milestone often introduced me to their friends as the son they never had," Riordan said. ". . . Mr. Milestone had made the comment several times that, instead of going to a family member, (the Oscars) should go to Christopher. I heard him say that myself so it was not a surprise to me when they showed up here."

Riordan said he frequently showed the Oscars to friends: "I've never made a secret of these being in my home. Obviously, if I knew that I had stolen merchandise I would not have been so open as to allow people to look at them."

Ultimately, Riordan's openness may have cost him the prized statuettes. In a declaration filed with the Academy's lawsuit, costume designer Donald Lee Feld stated that he had seen the Oscars in Riordan's home.

"When I asked Riordan how he obtained these prestigious Milestone awards, he waffled considerably and would not say how he obtained them," Feld declared.

The declaration went on to say that, sometime in mid-August, Feld received a phone call from a friend of Riordan who told him that Riordan was planning to move to Ashland, Ore., and had been attempting to sell the Milestone Oscars to raise money. Feld also stated that other acquaintances had told him Riordan planned to take the Oscars to Oregon "to impress his new neighbors."

Riordan said he never tried to sell the Oscars and that his former friends set him up.

But the Academy moved quickly on the information. It went to court last week to argue that, because the Academy had provided replacement Oscars, it was the rightful owner of the Milestone awards. A Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner agreed, and permitted the Academy to serve Riordan with notice that he was required to return the statuettes.

Both sides say Riordan willingly complied.

While Academy officials said they are skeptical of Riordan's explanation, they added that they are not inclined to press for a police investigation. "The Academy's main interest was to recover the statuettes," said Academy lawyer Phyllis Kupferstein. "I don't know that there's a need to press it any further."

Riordan, meanwhile, says he is "glad I'm leaving this city." He expects to leave Los Angeles for Oregon today.

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