Catholic News Agency
The Catholic University of America cannot auction a dress from the Wizard of Oz until a court resolves a legal challenge about its ownership, a federal judge has said.
The university had scheduled an auction of the dress worn by Judy Garland for the classic movie in hopes of raising more than $1 million for its drama department. The legal challenge comes from Wisconsin resident Barbara Ann Hartke, 81, a niece of a Dominican priest and drama professor at the university. She says that the dress should be hers because she is the priest’s closest living relative.
Judge Paul Gardephe, in a May 23 temporary injunction, ruled that the niece’s lawsuit had enough merit to proceed. He blocked the planned auction until the lawsuit challenging ownership of the dress is legally settled through proceedings in Manhattan federal court. He has set another hearing in June. The ruling could postpone the sale of the dress for months or years, the Washington Post reports.
Mercedes McCambridge, an Oscar-winning actress and artist-in-residence at Catholic University in 1973, had given the dress to Father Gilbert Hartke, O.P., the founder and head of the university’s drama school. In the late 1980s, the dress went missing and the costume became the subject of rumor. Matt Ripa, a lecturer and operations coordinator for the university’s drama department, happened upon a bag atop faculty mailboxes in 2021. He opened the bag to find a shoebox, inside of which was the dress.
Barbara Ann Hartke’s lawsuit has support from at least one other relative of Hartke, who was one of six siblings. However, the university filed affidavits from other relatives who say Hartke told them the dress belonged to the university.
The university also filed an affidavit from Father Kenneth R. Letoile, O.P., the Prior Provincial of the Province of St. Joseph, who explained that the Dominican priest had made a vow of poverty and not allowed to possess anything as personal property. Any gifts to him should have proceeded to the province, and the province did not claim ownership of the Wizard of Oz dress.
Shawn Brenhouse, an attorney for Catholic University, said the university will continue to defend its right to sell the dress, the proceeds of which are planned to support the drama school.
“The Court’s decision to preserve the status quo was preliminary and did not get to the merits of Barbara Hartke’s claim to the dress,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “We look forward to presenting our position, and the overwhelming evidence contradicting Ms. Hartke’s claim, to the Court in the course of this litigation.”
In court papers, Barbara Ann Hartke’s attorney Anthony Scordo III argued that his client could show that Father Hartke’s estate was the rightful owner of the dress. McCambridge had “specifically and publicly” given the dress to the priest and the dress is “therefore an asset of decedent’s estate.”
Gardephe rejected the university’s argument that the dress must be sold urgently so that potential buyers would not lose interest. He cited the enduring popularity of the film and said that controversy over the dress has generated more interest.
According to the auction company Bonhams, Judy Garland wore the gingham dress while filming a scene in which her character Dorothy Gale faces the Wicked Witch of the West in the witch’s castle.
The dress from the 1939 movie is one of only two existing dresses that retains its white blouse. It is now valued at an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million, Bonhams said. Another surviving dress was auctioned for $1.5 million in 2015.
The university had said that proceeds from the sale of the dress would endow a faculty chair, a position that will support the current bachelor of fine arts degree in acting for theater, film, and television, as well as the development of a new formal film acting program at the university’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art.
Dr. Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw, Dean of the School of Music, Drama and Art of The Catholic University of America, is the wife of Michael Warsaw, chairman and CEO of the EWTN Global Catholic Network, Catholic News Agency’s parent network.