It’s the goal of pretty much everyone in the film industry to take home an Academy Award, which most of us refer to simply as an Oscar. It’s the most prestigious award in all of film, and even the Academy is aware of their reputation and want to protect that. Because of this, the Academy is very protective of what happens to their statues.
To maintain the prestige of the award, Oscars that are given out can’t be sold during someone’s lifetime, and can only be passed down to their heirs. Even those heirs can’t sell them, unless they sell them back to the Academy for storage. They won’t get much money for their troubles, though, as the Academy will give them just a single dollar.
It’s an agreement that’s been ongoing since 1950, so anybody that’s won an award since then can’t sell their trophy, otherwise they’ll face legal action from the Academy. There’s been just one instance in which someone has auctioned off their trophy, and it might be more recent than you think. It happened in 1992, and the story behind the auction is quite sad.
The late Harold Russell was a member of the United States military that served during World War II. Russell appeared in a documentary called “Diary of a Sergeant”, which caught the eye of director William Wylar. The character that Wylar had for his film “The Best Years of Our Lives” was a soldier that had lost his hands, and that’s exactly what had happened to Russell during his military service.
With that, Wylar cast Russell in the movie. “The Best Years of Our Lives” was a hit, and Russell became one of just a handful of people to earn an Oscar nomination in his debut. Russell won the award in 1946 for Best Supporting Actor, and walked away from acting for the most part. It wasn’t until 1980 that Russell returned to acting in “Inside Moves”, and his final roles came in lone-episode appearances of “Trapper John, M.D.” and “China Beach”. His fifth and final role was in 1997’s “Dogtown”.
Russell held on to his Oscar for decades leading up to the early 1990s. At that point, Russell’s wife had become very ill, and her medical expenses were starting to pile up. Without many options to turn to, Russell defied Oscars tradition and decided to sell his award. Russell enlisted an auction house to sell his trophy to the highest bidder, earning just over $60,000 at the auction.
There were some that criticized Russell at the time, but he couldn’t have cared less about the trophy at the time. “I don’t know why anybody would be critical,” Russell said. “My wife’s health is much more important than sentimental reasons. The movie will be here, even if Oscar isn’t.” He was allowed to sell his trophy since he won it before the provision regarding sales of the trophy went through in 1950.
Since then, there has only been one Oscar that’s been sold to the public. Orson Welles, who won in 1941 for his work as a writer for “Citizen Kane”, left his Oscar to his heirs. The Academy tried to sue them for attempting to auction, but it was a win that happened before 1950 and Welles never had an agreement with the Academy. It was then sold years after a court ruled in their favor, earning over $860,000 in late 2011.