History of the Oscar statuette
The Academy Award of Merit, or Oscar statuette, designed to symbolize cinematic achievements, is made of gilded Britannia on a black metal base, stands over a foot tall, and weighs eight and a half pounds. It is designed as an Art Deco knight, poised with a sword in hand, standing on a film reel with five spokes, each symbolizing the original five branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: producers, directors, writers, actors, and Technicians. (Now the Academy is divided into fifteen branches: actors, directors, cinematographers, producers, executives, writers, art directors, musicians, sound, visual effects, makeup artists and hairstylists, public relations, documentary, feature film, and short film.)
Where did Oscar statues originate?
The Academy didn’t officially nickname the trophy Oscar until 1939, but the beginning of the statue’s nickname, Oscar, is questionable. Battle stories include:
- A biography of actress Bette Davis suggests she named her 1936 Academy Award after her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson.
- A 1934 Time Magazine article by Sidney Skolsky referred to Katharine Hepburn’s Best Actress trophy as an “Oscar.”
- Walt Disney thanks to the Academy for its “Oscar” in 1932.
- Margaret Herrick, then executive secretary of the Academy, would muse in 1931 that the prize resembled her cousin Oscar Pierce. A newspaper columnist who attended the observation wrote down the nickname in a byline.
- Louis B. Mayer’s executive secretary, Eleanor Lilleberg, saw the first statuette in 1928 and declared it to resemble King Oscar, then later that day renamed him, Oscar.
MGM’s art director Cedric Gibbons had developed the design on a scroll in 1927, using Mexican director and actor Emilio Fernandez as the model for the figure of the knight, and oversaw its progress from there. George Stanley, a sculptor, fashioned a clay sculpture from the design; then Sachin Smith cast the statue in tin and copper and gilded it with gold. Initially, the figurines were made of solid bronze, covered with gold, but eventually, Britannia metal replaced the nascent bronze. As a tin-like alloy, the Britannia metal makes it easier to achieve a smooth finish for the trophy. Finally, each nearly completed award is covered in copper, nickel, silver, and 24-karat gold. From 1943-1945, the final years of World War II, the trophies were finished with painted plaster instead of gold to support America’s war effort during the metal shortage. After the end of the war, the Academy invited the winners of the plaster statuettes to exchange their awards for the gilded ones. These awesome trophies take a little more work than your average business crystal prize.
Originally, CW Shumway & Sons Foundry in Batavia, Illinois, cast the mold for the Oscar statuette every year. Still, since 1983, the awards have been presented by RS Owens & Company in Chicago, Illinois. About fifty new figurines are created each January for that year’s winners. However, the creators can never be sure how many will be given out until the sealed envelopes are opened and that year’s winners are announced. Any prizes not awarded in any given year will be kept in the security of the Academy’s vault until the following year’s ceremony.
Did they change the Oscar statuette?
For some early years, the delivery of the newly manufactured Oscar statuettes from Chicago to Los Angeles became an Academy publicity event. Usually, though, they were delivered nationwide by a carrier—until 2000, when the shipment was stolen from the carrier’s loading dock a few weeks before they were due to be presented. Although the stolen cargo was located within a week, the Academy has not only taken the precautions to deliver the trophies via a special flight via United Airlines. Still, it has also stored enough awards for a year of ceremony in the vault. Time.
Since 1950, Oscar winners and their heirs have been prohibited from selling Oscar statuettes without first offering to sell them back to the Academy for one dollar, after which the figure is returned to the Academy’s treasury. In the absence of this provision, public auctions and private deals have resulted in the sale of Oscar statuettes for six-figure sums. The Academy has won several legal battles to ban such sales individually, yet some sales efforts have ended successfully.