9 Major Awards Whose Owners Sold Them Off For Cold Hard Cash

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Die-hard memorabilia collectors would kill to put a prestigious award like a Best Picture Oscar or a championship ring on the shelf. The trophies, medals, and statuettes given to the recipients of world-famous prizes can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. So it should come as no surprise that athletes, scientists, musicians, and other celebrities are occasionally willing to part with their hard-earned trophies for cold, hard cash. Some do it after falling on hard times, or to pay pricey medical bills (a pop-culture argument for better healthcare coverage if there ever was one). Some plan to give the money to charity. Others simply find that after decades, having multiple awards gathering dust on the shelf just isn’t worthwhile. And so they or their heirs hand them off to an auction house—though not always with the blessing of the organization that gave them the award in the first place. Here are nine awards that have been known to garner their owners (lots of) extra dough.  

1. Oscar statuettes

In 1951, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adopted a rule that Oscar winners and their heirs could not sell off their statuette without first offering to sell it back to the Academy for $1. So when an auction house sold off a 1942 statuette won by the art director of the Rita Hayworth movie My Gal Sal last summer, the Academy filed a lawsuit seeking to buy it back for just $10. It had sold for more than $79,000. The case is still in court.

In 2012, the directing Oscar awarded to Michael Curtiz for Casablanca, previously owned by magician David Copperfield, was again put up for sale, fetching more than $2 million without inspiring any lawsuits. The Oscars pictured in the image above were part of the same collection put up for sale by Nate D. Sanders Auctions that year. 

2. Nobel Prizes

Image Credit: Nate D. Sanders Auctions

The 1988 Nobel Prize in physics was auctioned off in April by Nate D. Sanders Auctions for more than $765,000. The recipient, 92-year-old experimental physicist and The God Particle author Leon Lederman, said the prize had been sitting on a shelf for decades. His wife told the Associated Press that the money would be used to pay for medical bills associated with Lederman’s recent dementia diagnosis.

Although 10 Nobel Prizes have been sold, it was the second time a Nobel has been auctioned off by a living recipient, the first being James Watson’s medal for discovering the structure of DNA. The buyer of that medal said he intended to return it to the scientist, and that he was "distressed" Watson felt pressured to part with it. 

3. Grammys

Image Credit: Robert Edward Auctions

After the death of Johnny Cash, three of his Grammys were auctioned off by Sotheby’s, one for $160,000Earlier this year, guitarist Dave Burgess of The Champs auctioned off an award he received for his song "Tequila" at the first-ever Grammys in 1959 in order to pay for the medical bills of a family member. It fetched $30,000, over the objections of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. 

4. Emmys 

Compared to other entertainment trophies, Emmys don’t fetch much money. Memorabilia auction house Nate D. Sanders Auctions has sold at least 20 Emmys, most for around $15,000.

5. Tonys 

Like the Oscars, Tony award winners are compelled to keep their awards by something called the Tony Award Medallion Receipt Agreement [PDF]. The American Theatre Wing mandates that before a recipient or heir sells a Tony, they offer to sell it back to the organization for $10. That's a definite bargain for the American Theatre Wing; the late Mary Martin’s Tony for playing Maria von Trapp in the 1959-1960 production of The Sound of Music sold for $43,750 this year. 

6. Stanley Cup rings

An LA Kings Stanley Cup ring donated by the team to a charity auction. Image Credit: Charitybuzz

For retired athletes, championship jewelry may not retain its sentimental value. In 2011, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Bryan Trottier sold dozens of items of memorabilia, including two Stanley Cup rings, for $60,000. Retired player Rogie Vachon sold one of his three championship rings, telling the AP that he was no longer attached to the rings from 1967. Needless to say, the actual Stanley Cup can’t be auctioned off, since it’s passed from winner to winner each year.  

7. NBA Championship rings

Two NBA championship rings won by Kobe Bryant sold in 2013, but the basketball player initially didn’t want them auctioned at all. Bryant sued the auction company, saying that the rings, put up for sale by his parents, couldn’t be sold. According to NBA.com, the sale moved forward “after the five-time NBA champion's parents apologized to their son and thanked him for his financial support.” Awkward. Each sold for more than $100,000, and a portion of the proceeds benefited a charity called The Bully Project

8. Heisman trophies

College football’s most prestigious prize, the Heisman Trophy, has largely remained in the possession of the recipients or their heirs, but five have been sold at auctions. The first trophy ever sold belonged to O.J. Simpson. A court ordered that the former football player sell the trophy to help pay damages in a civil ruling against him for the murder of his ex-wife and Ronald Goldman. The award fetched $230,000 during a 1999 auction. (USC’s copy of the 1968 trophy was reported stolen in 1994, and recovered by police earlier this year.)

9. Miss America crowns

Image Credit: Nate D. Sanders Auctions

In 2012, a crystal-encrusted Miss America crown in its original wooden case fetched more than $19,000 at an auction. The auction house—Nate D. Sanders, seemingly the go-to destination for other people's awards—called it “a scarce and glamorous piece of Americana.” The lot description did not disclose the recipient or year it was won, simply noting that it was “awarded to a woman who won a state pageant, which ushered her into the national competition.” The pageant no doubt considers the selling of its crowns unladylike.