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A Big Legal Battle Over Garland's Mini Award

THE OSCARS

March 22, 2002|IRENE LACHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The case of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vs. Michael Sidney Luft may be one of the strangest, most convoluted legal tangles the academy has encountered yet in its fierce attempts to control the golden image of Oscar. The fracas has all the elements of a quirky potboiler, right down to an undercover sting operation.

And even though this isn't exactly a whodunit, you could certainly call this story a what-is-it: In short, is Judy Garland's 1940 Oscar, which Sid Luft, her former husband, has been peddling around town, real or fake?

The question is crucial because it could determine whether the academy can stop the sale. Since 1950, the industry organization has required Oscar winners to sign an agreement pledging, in effect, to keep their awards off the market. If recipients or their heirs want to sell their Oscars, they have been required to offer the academy first right of refusal in exchange for $10. (That amount was dropped to $1 in the 1980s, so that people would understand the money was just a token amount and not a reflection of the Oscar's actual worth.)

So if the shrimp-sized Oscar honoring Garland for "The Wizard of Oz" were deemed real--in those days the academy awarded smaller Oscars to juvenile performers--then Luft could sell it, because the statuette would have predated the winner's agreements giving the academy control over its sale. But if it was a duplicate produced after the agreements went into effect, as the academy claimed, then the academy would have control.

Luft's attempts to mine Oscar gold have triggered eight years of on-and-off litigation involving three court judgments and two statuettes. The legal fracas may have ended this month when a federal judge ordered Luft to cough up the juvenile Oscar in his possession, even if it's a duplicate.

Does the academy really expect to get it? The question makes academy executive director Bruce Davis laugh. "The answer is yes, I think we'll get it," he says, "but I don't think it will be easy."

From Luft's perspective, the case is far from clear. He says it "has an aura of, mystique is one word, somebody's hiding something is another word, which could be me. Maybe I'm not giving you all the facts. But I haven't got them because I'm confused myself."

It all began in December 1993, when Christie's scheduled an auction of memorabilia that was to include Garland's pint-size Oscar. Because the academy didn't begin requiring signed contracts until 1950, a decade after that Oscar was awarded, the organization assumed there was nothing it could do about the sale. Until, that is, academy officials received a tip suggesting they watch a "Today Show" broadcast displaying items about to go on the block.

"Sure enough, it wasn't her Oscar," Davis says. "The one she got was quite distinctive, as seen in the picture of her with Mickey Rooney. The one she had had a very tall base.... The one Christie's was offering was not a tall base. We were scratching our heads, and until that moment it didn't occur to us that a duplicate existed."

The academy scoured its files and found a 1958 letter from the publicity firm Rogers & Cowan saying that Garland's Oscar had been lost and asking for a replacement at Garland's expense. The academy obliged and asked the performer to sign a first-right-of-refusal agreement covering the duplicate Oscar and any others that might be in her possession. (Garland was married to Luft from 1952 to 1965.)

When the academy found the paperwork, its lawyers shot off letters demanding the sale be stopped. Christie's dropped out because it wasn't interested in selling a duplicate anyway, but Luft battled the academy in court. He argued that the publicist's letter was forged by somebody in the firm who wanted a statuette for him- or herself, and that Garland had never signed a winner's agreement because she'd never lost the original or received a duplicate. But Luft can't explain why the Oscar he offered Christie's appears to be different from the one Garland and Rooney are clutching in the famous photograph.

"When I first saw [Judy's] Oscar it didn't have a long base," Luft says. "It had a short base, so that's part of the mystery. Although the picture shows Mickey and Judy with a [tall-base] Oscar, she might have had to send that unit back to have them inscribe the plaque."

At any rate, the court ruled in the academy's favor in 1995, declaring that the Oscar was a duplicate. And Luft was ordered to return the statuette to the academy. He countered that he needed to hold onto it because he planned to appeal. Time went by and no appeal was filed, so the academy called Luft's lawyer and asked for the award. His lawyer said that Luft had already given the statuette to his daughter, Lorna.

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