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Fate Pens Fairy-Tale Ending for Actress and Stolen Oscar

March 07, 1995|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several weeks later, Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscar ceremonies, was sitting at his desk when a friend called to tell him that an Oscar bearing O'Brien's name was scheduled to be sold at an auction.

Davis checked his records. Academy officials had supplied O'Brien with a replacement Oscar not long after they learned that the original had been stolen, and Davis figured that the replacement was up for sale. He was astonished to learn that the auction was offering the original.

Of the 2,113 Oscars awarded in the last 66 ceremonies, one dozen have been lost or stolen. There is a hot market for them. When Vivien Leigh's family sold her Oscar for "Gone With the Wind" in 1993, it fetched $563,500, the highest price ever paid for an Oscar.

In an effort to reduce the number of Oscars in public circulation, award winners since 1950 have been asked to sign an agreement that prohibits them or their heirs from selling the coveted trophy.

Cases of missing Oscars have been difficult to crack. O'Brien, however, got lucky.

Davis contacted a casting director friend of his and O'Brien's. The casting director phoned O'Brien and told her the Oscar had been found.

O'Brien first thought the call might be a prank. "I was just amazed," she said. "It means a lot more now than it did when it was lost. I had kept thinking about it. I always kept up hope."

Then the casting director called the auction on O'Brien's behalf and asked for the Oscar. Nash and Neimand got the word, and without hesitation agreed to return it to O'Brien.

"Almost like fate," Neimand said.

Despite receiving no reward, he had only one request: "Can I get a picture of me handing the Oscar to O'Brien so I can tell friends I once presented an Academy Award?"

A meeting was quickly arranged so O'Brien could tell the story of her loss to Nash and Neimand. Then, last month, the academy held a news conference for the trio. Amid the hot lights of television cameras, O'Brien once again received her Oscar. To thank Nash and Neimand for their generosity the academy gave each man two tickets to this year's ceremonies.

Finding a quiet moment, O'Brien pulled the two men aside. If they ever happened across the white nightgown she wore during her jaunty cakewalk dance or the white Victorian hat she donned on her way to the fair in "Meet Me in St. Louis," would they be so good as to give her a call?

Today, the Oscar sits in a locked antique display case in O'Brien's den in her Sherman Oaks home.

"I'll never," O'Brien said, "give it to anyone to polish again."

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