The actual Academy Award statue is pretty much worthless. Despite what it means for the careers of those who receive them, the trophies themselves aren’t all that valuable as actual objects. Still, back in 2000, a shipment of the statues disappeared in a theft that would eventually lead, in a circuitous way, to a 61-year-old junk collector finding 52 Oscars next to a trash bin—and receiving a $50,000 reward in the process.
Anthony Breznican detailed the whole caper in a story for Vanity Fair, which makes use of insight from Marc Zavala, the now-retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who led the investigation, to form a twisty tale of ultimately very low-stakes crime. Zavala recalls getting a call telling him that a roughly 500-pound shipment containing “55 newly minted Oscars” had gone missing on their journey from Chicago to Los Angeles “just two and a half weeks” before the ceremony.
The Academy, panicked that it didn’t have replacements on hand and fresh off a recent “public relations embarrassment” in which members’ voting ballots were lost in the mail, promised not to press charges if the statues were returned. It also commissioned a rush order of new trophies and offered a $50,000 reward for the statues which, being made out of gold-plated pewter, only cost “an average of $327 to manufacture” and are “essentially worthless” in terms of “raw materials.”
Even after finding likely suspects from among the dock workers loading shipments onto trucks during the shift when the Oscars disappeared, Zavala wasn’t able to locate the statues themselves. He arrested the two men responsible for the theft and searched the properties where they were supposed to be, but wasn’t able to come up with them until a Sunday night call came in telling him that a “junkman” named Willie Fulgear had found 52 of the 55 trophies “beside a trash bin” in Koreatown.
Fulgear, who made money selling reclaimed trash, ended up not only retrieving the Oscars but also receiving the $50,000 reward and attending the 72nd Academy Awards along with his son. Detective Zavala was invited, too. After the Oscars, even though the case seemed closed, he continued to wonder if there was more to Fulgear’s story than it appeared. Zavala learned that the man who seemingly “discovered” the Oscars was related—but estranged—from one of the thieves and was probably “tipped off” about where to find the stolen shipment.
Only one of the three still-missing Oscars has been found in the years since, discovered in “a drug kingpin’s home in Florida.” Zavala, the hardboiled protagonist of the story, still hopes to find the last two statues despite only working as a reserve officer now that he’s retired. Maybe if the case heats up and he can find that last pair of Oscars before Sunday, Zavala can make up for the Academy’s mistakes and award them to Uncut Gems and The Lighthouse himself.
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