26 seconds of history valued at $16 million

Film: Panel orders government to pay Zapruder's heirs for historical JFK artifact

August 04, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The government must pay $16 million for the film that captured President John F. Kennedy's assassination, an arbitration panel has ruled, making the 26 seconds of 8 mm film the most expensive historical artifact in U.S. history.

Concluding a dispute that brought comparisons to the $30.8 million paid for a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript and the $3 million spent on Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball, a divided panel gave the heirs of Abraham Zapruder, who died in 1970, a sum that's much less than they sought but far more than the government wanted to pay.

The dispute involved the stunning color footage Zapruder filmed near the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza in Dallas as Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963.

Within a day, Zapruder, a dress manufacturer, had sold the footage to Life magazine for $150,000. In 1975, Life sold it back to his heirs for $1. The U.S. government later took possession of the film as part of the investigation into the assassination.

For more than two decades, the film has been kept in a cold, dark corner of the National Archives in College Park, its quality and vivid colors still haunting.

The family agreed to the government's maintaining possession of the film, but the heirs retain the copyright. The family has earned about $900,000 from the 6-foot-long section of film, including $300,000 from a video. It sold rights to use the footage to, among others, director Oliver Stone for his movie "JFK."

In 1997, the Assassination Records Review Board declared the film to be a permanent possession of the United States, setting off the debate over its value.

After fruitless settlement talks, both sides agreed to arbitration. The family picked Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who arbitrated the mega-Agent Orange litigation, while the government took former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger. Feinberg and Dellinger then picked Arlin Adams, a former federal judge, to preside.

The two sides set the lower and upper limits for a settlement. The government said the film's value was $1 million, while Zapruder's heirs -- daughter Myrna Ries of Dallas and son Henry Zapruder of Chevy Chase -- had asked for $30 million.

Feinberg and Adams ultimately were the majority in the 2-1 decision and appear to have essentially split the difference between the feuding parties, with Dellinger dissenting and finding the value more in the area of $3 million to $5 million.

Until the dispute, the most expensive historical document of 20th century U.S. history was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's D-Day order, which sold for $200,000. The most expensive manuscript in American history is believed to be the manuscript of Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, which fetched $1.5 million.

The priciest U.S. historical document of any sort is believed to be the $2.4 million paid for a broadsheet of the Declaration of Independence, printed in Philadelphia on July 4 and 5, 1776, upon the order of the Continental Congress.

The Zapruder family, represented by attorney Robert S. Bennett, argued that the film was unique, world-famous, in good condition, "a potential key to unlocking the crime of the century" and thus possibly "the most important piece of criminal evidence ever to come to market" and a "relic of a slain president, the value of which is enhanced through its association with the era of Camelot."

Their two appraisers, whose views swayed the panel's majority, maintained that the arbitrators had to consider the art market and the mercurial, head-turning collectibles field. They cited the $30.8 million paid by Microsoft's Bill Gates in 1994 for Leonardo da Vinci's 72-page Codex Leicester, as well as the $3 million paid by a collector last year for McGwire's 70th home-run baseball.

As for comparison to the "House Divided" speech manuscript or "any copy of the Declaration of Independence," the family said the Zapruder film is "far more famous" than either. Its two key witnesses asserted that the film would have sold at auction for at least $25 million, with the Codex sale an apt comparison for discerning fair market value.

The government responded that there was no proven market for the sale of camera original film and it was wrong to suggest the film had a value equal to oil painting masterpieces.

Pub Date: 8/04/99

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