When Whoopi Goldberg won a Best Supporting Actress in 1991 for “Ghost,” she surely had no idea her Oscar would end up in a trash can.
Goldberg had sent it to R.S. Owens & Company, the statue’s Chicago-based manufacturer, for a cleaning. But the box, which had been opened and resealed, arrived empty. The award was later found in a California airport garbage bin and the thief was never apprehended.
“It’s interesting that stolen Oscars sometimes wind up in the garbage,” Jim Piazza, co-author of “Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History,” told The Post. “It’s as if they’re either priceless or worthless. The thieves, I think, tend to get cold feet.”
Since the first ceremony took place in 1929, some 80 Oscars have been lost or stolen. All but 11 have been found, materializing in trash cans and auction catalogs.
In more than a dozen instances, the trophies — gold-plated over bronze, standing more than 13 inches tall and weighing in at 8½ pounds — were stolen by bona fide criminals. Such was the case in 2000, when a pallet of 55 uninscribed Oscars disappeared from a California loading dock.
They had been shipped there from R.S. Owens’ Chicago headquarters and should have been delivered to the Academy before the awards ceremony. Instead, the thieves apparently chickened out, and the statues ended up in a supermarket dumpster in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles.
A junkman named Willie Fulgear found 52 of the mementos, turned them in for a $50,000 reward and saved that year’s ceremony.
The thieves, employees of the trucking company who stole the boxes without knowing their contents, were arrested and pleaded no contest; one was sentenced to six months in prison, the other received probation. Two of the errant statuettes remain at large; one surfaced in 2003 during a Florida drug bust.
The first Academy Award thought to have been swiped was at the ninth annual ceremony, in 1938, held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Alice Brady won a Best Supporting Actress plaque (trophies weren’t awarded in supporting categories until 1943) for her role in “In Old Chicago.” But she was bedridden at home with a bum ankle and a seemingly unknown man accepted it in her stead.
Rumors swirled that the guy was an intruder and that he had kept the award. Soon after, when Brady was on the mend, the Academy hosted a cute makeup ceremony in which she was presented with a “new” Oscar. Common wisdom held that she was given a replacement, and Brady, who died of cancer just a year later, never got a chance to comment.
In 2008, what was thought to be her replacement Oscar surfaced at Heritage Auction House in LA, going for $59,750. The seller was the William and Alice Brady Estate Archive.But according to research later done by Academy librarian Libby Wertin, the award auctioned off was actually the original. There never was a replacement. The so-called mystery man who claimed it was Henry King, director of “In Old Chicago.”
He delivered it, uninscribed, to Brady, who then returned it to the Academy for customization. That’s the one that was then presented to her in the makeup ceremony.
“Without the lore, the estate would have gotten less for [Brady’s] award,” Oscars expert Olivia Rutigliano, a Columbia University Ph.D. candidate who is devoted to unraveling Academy Award mysteries, told The Post. “And now, with it being the original, the price goes up again. The more stories there are, the more it is worth.”
Members of the Brady estate were lucky that they even got to unload the trophy. Oscars given out after 1951 cannot be legally sold.
This mandate proved tricky for the estate of Mary Pickford, who received a Best Actress Oscar in 1930 for “Coquette.” Unfortunately for her family, the old Hollywood legend also received an honorary Academy Award in the 1970s.
“That was when she signed an agreement to never sell any Academy Award,” Darren Julien, president of Julien’s Auctions, told The Post. The stipulation extended to her heirs as well. “Her estate tried to sell it, the Academy sued and the estate of Mary Pickford lost.”
As for the auction house’s own interest in gray-area goods: “We never sell them,” Julien explained, “because we always honor the Academy’s request and value our relationship with them over anything else.”
Despite the difficulty of selling hot, or even lukewarm, Oscars, some people just can’t help but nab them. Olympia Dukakis had her 1988 Best Supporting Actress award (for “Moonstruck”) swiped right out of her Montclair, NJ, kitchen. The sticky-fingered crook — who was never caught — tried to collect a ransom, then went silent. Dukakis bought a $78 replacement from the Academy and the original has yet to resurface.
Frances McDormand barely had a chance to showboat her Best Actress trophy for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2018 before it was snatched at the Governors Ball after the big show. The alleged thief, Terry Bryant, who claimed to be an invited guest, had the temerity to exit with McDormand’s Oscar held high, announcing, “We did it.” He was arrested, the statue was returned, Bryant claimed to have not known that the Oscar was real and charges were dropped.
Still at large: the Best Supporting Actress plaque won in 1940 by Hattie McDaniel — the first black person to earn an Academy Award, for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone with the Wind” — which was donated to Howard University and disappeared during a civil-rights protest.
Steven Spielberg had to have earned brownie points when he stepped up and took three trafficked Oscars out of general circulation.In a private sale, the director paid $607,500 for Clark Gable’s 1934 “It Happened One Night” Best Actor award and $578,000 for Bette Davis’s 1938 prize for “Jezebel;” then Spielberg bought a second of Davis’ Best Actress statues (1935’s “Dangerous”) for $180,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002.
“Spielberg returned them to the Academy,” Piazza said. Also through Sotheby’s, in 1999, “Michael Jackson purchased producer David O. Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind” Oscar for a record-setting $1.54 million. Since the singer’s death, Piazza said, “nobody
knows where it is.”
Sometimes, though, an errant Oscar receives its Hollywood ending. Such was the case for Margaret O’Brien’s miniature-sized juvenile Oscar (given out sporadically from 1935 until 1961) for “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
“Margaret had an awards room in her family’s Beverly Hills home and one day the maid offered to take three awards for a good polishing.
Margaret’s mother agreed to that but the maid was never seen again,” Randal Malone, an actor and current-day manager of O’Brien, told The Post. “That happened in 1958, when Margaret would have been around 20. Then in 1995, the award turned up in an auction catalog.” It was expected to fetch at least $10,000.
Before that happened, the Oscar somehow ended up at a Pasadena flea market. “Most people thought it was a prop,” said Malone.
But a pair of sports-memorabilia collectors took a shot at it being something more and bought it for $500. After learning that their find had been stolen, the two returned it to O’Brien and the Academy gave them tickets to that year’s Oscars ceremony.
“They were happy that it found its way back to Margaret but were chagrined for themselves,” Malone added. “They thought they had found their treasure.”
And yet, for a trophy that thieves value enough to steal, Oscar doesn’t always get a lot of respect from the stars who win him.
Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet keep theirs in their bathrooms. And Jared Leto, who won Best Supporting Actor for “Dallas Buyers Club” in 2014, doesn’t even know where his Oscar is.
“You know, I found out that it’s been missing for, like three years, and I didn’t know that,” the actor revealed in January on “The Late Late Show With James Corden.”
“I had moved houses in LA and . . . it somehow just magically kind of disappeared . . . I hope it’s in good hands wherever it is.”
Those who know Leto aren’t surprised. “From what I know of Jared, the award probably doesn’t mean that much to him,” Solon Bixler, who played guitar in Leto’s band Thirty Seconds to Mars, told The Post. “I’d say he cares more about the work than about the accolades.”
Fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone, who has brought Leto to her clients’ shows, told The Post: “I would be disappointed if he knew it was in his garage or somewhere. It’s totally on brand for Jared Leto to not know where his Oscar is.”
He’s in good company. Angelina Jolie lost track of hers (Best Supporting Actress 2000 for “Girl, Interrupted”) after giving it to her now-deceased mother. Jeff Bridges has no clue what happened to his trophy (Best Actor 2010 for “Crazy Heart”).
Katharine Hepburn has won more (four) acting Oscars than anyone else, but never bothered to claim even one at the big ceremony. So it’s only fitting that one went missing while on display in a Guinness World Records exhibit at the Empire State Building.Matt Damon can’t find his — a 1998 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” — either.
As he told the London Daily Express: “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it.”