This just ain't Oscar's year.

Already dogged by the Wall Street Journal, which is trying to scoop the winners before awards night, and by the Post Office, which misrouted 4,000 ballots forcing a new mailing and extended voting deadline, the folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have a new crisis du jour: The little gold man has apparently been kidnapped.

Crates containing all 55 statuettes to be presented March 26 have gone missing from loading docks in Southern California, the Academy confirmed today.

The shipment was sent March 3 via Roadway Express (the Academy's usual shipper) from Chicago, where the Oscars are minted by the R.S. Owens Company. The delivery arrived in the city of Bell, just south of L.A., five days later, but disappeared soon after. On Monday, Roadway told the Academy the shipment was stolen.

A replacement order of 20 to 30 Oscars is expected by March 24, two days before the ceremony. This time the shipment is coming via United Air Cargo under tight security. The Academy already has 20 Oscars in store for just such an occasion. (Awards are to be given out in 23 categories plus three special awards, whose winners have already been announced. Because of the CIA-like secrecy of the awards, winners' names aren't engraved on the statues until after the ceremony.)

"This is just a minor glitch," the Academy's executive director, Bruce Davis said at a press conference today. "It's not the end of the Oscars. The show will go on."

Coincidentally, the missing Oscar ballots were found by the Post Office in a Bell processing center--and Davis says he's not taking anymore chances. "We've told Billy Crystal not to go anywhere near Bell," he cracked, "It's like the Bermuda Triangle down there."

Davis says he has no idea how the Oscar thieves could have known the contents of the shipment. The stolen statuettes were housed six to a box, with each carton weighing 51 pounds, unmarked and shrink-wrapped together. "You'd have to have a forklift and a truck to take them away," said Davis adding that no ransom note has been found.

The heist is being jointly investigated by Bell police, the LAPD and even the FBI, which has put its art theft specialists on the case. There's a 24-hour hotline (213-485-2505) for anyone who might have information on whodunit and Roadway is offering a $50,000 reward.

The total value of the shipment was $18,000, says Davis. Each Oscar is 13 1/2 inches tall, is covered with gold-plated britannium and weighs about 8 pounds. (Although each trophy is only worth a couple hundred dollars, the real value is far greater. Just last year Michael Jackson snapped up a Gone with the Wind Oscar for over $1 million. However, the Academy now requires winners to sign a contract stating the actual trophy is the property of the organization--preventing any future sale.)

Last year, the statuettes were delivered by an armored car that stopped in five different cities for hype-boosting photo ops. Davis swears that the theft was not the publicity stunt the Academy hoped for.

And when asked if authorities had any leads on the MIA statues, Davis said, "They're probably at Jim Carrey's house."

We think he was joking.

(ORIGINALLY POSTED 3/17/00 at 9:35 a.m. PT)

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