He’s bigger than you think, and much heavier than his pictures suggest. Unlike most six-foot-tall screen legends who seem to shrink to five and a half-foot disappointments in person, he actually seems bigger in person. Some of that has to do with the “soap box” he stands on, like the legendary 5’4″ tall Alan Ladd. He is truly impressive in the flesh, so to speak, though he doesn’t have any. He is 13 and ½ inches tall and weighs a solid 8 and ½ lbs., stripped, which he always is. His name is “Oscar,” and this is the story of his bona fides.
The Oscar statuette, perhaps the most famous award in the world, was sketched out on a napkin by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer set design department head Cedric Gibbons a week after the Academy was established, on orders from his boss, Louis B. Mayer. The driving force behind the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “L.B.” thought giving out awards would generate goodwill for the Academy.
Sculpted by Los Angeles artist George Stanely, it an Art Deco representation of a Crusader, which explains the sweeping girdle of the sword somewhat concealed by Oscar’s forearms. The sword proved to be the perfect prop for protecting the naked gent’s modesty. The “Crusader” stands on a five-sprocketed film-reel whose five spokes represent the five original branches of the Academy: actors, producers, writers, directors and the technical crafts.
While the actual figure of the Academy Award has not changed in 80 years, the statuettes originally were fabricated from solid bronze and gold-plated. Early Oscars were prone to tarnishing and pitting, and in 1931, in order to improve the finish, the base metal was changed to brittanium, a pewter-like alloy consisting of tin, copper and antimony.
The Academy orders 50 or 55 statuettes annually to replace its coffers, which are depleted by the previous year’s awards and by replacing lost or damaged Oscars. Casting 50 statuettes typically takes trophy-maker R.S. Owens (Chicago, Illinois), three weeks to a month to fulfill the order.
R.S. Owens has manufactured all the Oscars handed out by the Academy since 1983, when the original manufacturer gave up the account due to financial problems. It takes ten employees an average of five & ½ hours to fabricate each Oscar, beginning with the casting of the statuette in a 45-pound steel mold. After being ejected from the mold, the cast is deburred and degreased, and then polished for 45 minutes to a mirror finish.
During the polishing process, the cast is first electroplated with a light coat of copper, then copper-plated again with a heavier layer. The statuette is then nickel plated, sealing the pores in the cast, and then bathed in a silver-plate wash as silver adheres well to gold. Finally, after even more polishing, a 24-karat gold plate is applied before a lacquer finish is baked on to the statuette to prevent tarnishing.
R.S. Owens CEO Owen R. Siegel believes that the Oscar statuette has a higher intrinsic value than any other award as it contains more gold than comparable awards. He should know, as his company manufactures the advertising industry’s Clio Award, the Emmy, the Miss America Award, the MTV Music Video Award, and the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Since the 1970s, the actual value of the statuette has been a secret, though Siegel admits that without the gold plate, the award would be worth less than $100, about its value in the early ’70s, before inflation. But the Oscar now sports a heavier layer of gold plate and thus has a greater gold content than it did 25 years ago. According to Siegel, the value is a secret because “The Academy wants them to be considered priceless.”