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Judge blocks Catholic University from auctioning ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress

Dorothy's blue-and-white gingham dress worn by Judy Garland in the classic film "The Wizard of Oz" hangs on display at Bonhams in New York. (Video: Reuters)
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NEW YORK — A federal judge on Monday blocked Catholic University from auctioning off a gingham dress worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” one day before it was set to be put up for bids that some expected to generate up to $1.2 million for the school’s drama department.

U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe ruled that a Wisconsin woman’s lawsuit claiming ownership of the dress had enough merit to proceed, and that the garment could not change hands while the case is pending in federal court in Manhattan.

The ruling means any sale of the dress could be postponed by months or years. Gardephe said that he was prohibiting “any sale or transfer of the dress pending the outcome of this litigation.”

The dress at issue is one of six authenticated by experts as having been worn in the famous 1939 film by Garland, who played Dorothy. It was worn in the scene when Dorothy was captured at the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle.

In 1973, the dress was given as a gift to the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, the longtime head of Catholic University’s drama department who died in 1986. On behalf of the school, the auction house Bonhams had been expected to auction the dress Tuesday in Los Angeles, along with a number of other Hollywood and television memorabilia, including a Leslie Howard jacket from “Gone With the Wind” and a chair from Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca.”

But earlier this month, Hartke’s niece, Barbara Ann Hartke, sued to block the sale after learning about the plans to auction the dress from news reports, including on NBC’s “Today” show. The 81-year-old retired schoolteacher has said she was close to her late uncle, and that the dress has sentimental value.

Wisconsin woman says Judy Garland’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress belongs to her

Catholic University countered that the dress was gifted to the institution, and that Gilbert Hartke’s vow of poverty as a Dominican priest means he didn’t intend to personally own anything of value.

Shawn Brenhouse, an attorney for Catholic University, said in a statement that the auction would “be postponed until the resolution of this case,” but that the university would continue to fight for its ability to sell the dress and endow a faculty position in 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,” Brenhouse said. “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.”

The dress donation made headlines in the 1970s when it was given to Gilbert Hartke by Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, who was an artist-in-residence at the drama program. Hartke was a mentor to McCambridge, who had been a close friend of Garland’s.

Hartke did not take the keepsake with him when he retired decades ago, and the dress was in the possession of other staff members until it seemingly disappeared. Then, last year, lecturer Matt Ripa found the classic film collector’s item stashed above staff mailboxes.

Anthony Scordo III, Barbara Ann Hartke’s lawyer, said Monday he believed the judge paid close attention to written arguments in the case. Heading out of the courthouse, he said he had not yet spoken to his client to convey the development.

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Scordo argued in court papers that Barbara Ann Hartke would be “irreparably harmed” if the auction were to go forward, and that she could demonstrate that her uncle’s estate was the rightful owner of the property.

McCambridge “specifically and publicly” gifted the dress to Hartke, “and said dress is therefore an asset of decedent’s estate,” Scordo argued in court filings. He noted that McCambridge and Hartke had a close relationship.

A spokesperson for Bonhams declined to comment.

Gardephe rejected Catholic University’s contention that Barbara Ann Hartke’s case was frivolous, that her arguments were made in bad faith and that her interest in establishing ownership of the dress was purely financial.

The judge also said the university’s claim that there was an urgent need to auction off the item to keep potential buyers from losing interest was unfounded. Gardephe noted that for more than 80 years, the public has been fascinated by the classic film, and that the controversy over the dress’ ownership and the lawsuit have only generated more interest.

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