But what were 486 frames of 8-millimeter film actually worth? Although I agreed to help, I hadn't the vaguest notion of how one went about appraising a motion picture, let alone one that documented such a pivotal moment.
I enlisted the help of C. Cameron Macauley, a former colleague at UC Berkeley, whose knowledge of photographic history had led to a second career as an appraiser of still photos for museums and private collectors.
Abraham Zapruder sold his film to Time-Life Inc. the day after the assassination for $150,000 (equal to just over
$1 million in today's money), and Life magazine's editors, in their wisdom, decided that the public should never see it as a moving picture, but only as still pictures taken from its frames. Even Walter Cronkite couldn't get his hands on it, much to his fury. ("We believe that the Zapruder film is an invaluable asset, not of Time, Inc., but of the people of the United States," he intoned to the camera.)
For complicated reasons, Time-Life eventually sold the film back to the Zapruder family in 1975 for $1, and later that year, courtesy of Geraldo Rivera, the public saw a pirated copy, in its entirety, for the first time.
Three years later, attorney Henry Zapruder asked the National Archives to store the film "for safekeeping," believing he could get it back any time. But in 1992, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, mandating that everything related to the killing be held by the government, which, the archives stated, prevented it from returning the film to the family. Henry Zapruder argued that this constituted a "taking" of private property and that the government owed him a breathtaking $30 million.
Macauley and I went to see it for ourselves.
The dustproof room where we examined it resembled a scientific lab, and we had to wear white cotton gloves before handling it. The film at an earlier time had been stored in a cardboard box for an extended period and was thus exposed to varying heat and humidity conditions. It had shrunk in length, making it dangerous for additional copies to be made from it without risking severe damage to the original film.
Dust specks and dirt had been ground into the film's surface during rewinding, and we found many scratches, as well as two splices where it had accidentally been torn by a Life technician. In spite of these flaws, the Kodak film stock still retained its original brilliant color with no signs of deterioration over the 35 years since the film was exposed.
Professional appraisers begin by asking three questions of an item: (1) How much would it cost to replace it? (2) How much income is it capable of producing? and (3) What is its value on the open market?
In this case, the Zapruder film was irreplaceable. As for how much income it could produce, in the decades since the assassination, the Zapruders had realized about half a million dollars from the film — including $50,000 from Oliver Stone for its inclusion in his film "JFK."
Even when we adjusted the original $150,000 sale to Life magazine up to $784,065, to account for inflation, the total realized by the Zapruder family was still a far cry from $30 million. And the Zapruders retained the copyright, so they were free to continue their earnings by leasing copies of the film.