In 2005, curators at the Judy Garland Museum entered the actress’ former home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to find the display case holding a pair of her iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz smashed, with only a single red sequin remaining among the broken glass. For 13 years, police and private investigators have sought the shoes—and the $1 million reward that goes along with them—but with no breaks. Now, the F.B.I. has announced that they have finally recovered the movie memorabilia, and conservators at the Smithsonian Institution have confirmed that they are, indeed, Judy’s shoes.
The slippers, it turns out, were not actually owned by the Judy Garland Museum. Instead, they were property of a collector named Michael Shaw, who purchased them in 1970 for a mere $2,000, reports Jennifer Medina for The New York Times. Shaw, who also owns one of Dorothy’s dresses, a witch’s hat and a munchkin outfit from the 1939 movie, was in the habit of loaning out the slippers to museums around the country, donating his display fee to children’s charities. The slippers were on display as part of a 10-week traveling tour when they were stolen on the night of August 28. According to a press release from the Grand Rapids police, a thief or thieves broke into the museum’s back door and smashed open the plexiglass case. There were no cameras on the premises and the museum’s alarm failed to sound.
The police had little evidence to go on, and rumors spread that local youths had stolen the slippers and tossed them in the nearby Mississippi River or into an abandoned water-filled iron ore pit. But those leads proved fruitless, and police continued to investigate. “We believed that information would eventually surface and knew we were in this for the long haul,” says Grand Rapids police sergeant Robert Stein. “Over the years, our officers investigated numerous tips as they came in, eliminating each one. The problem is that there are a great many reproductions out there and people believed that these were the stolen slippers. Each proved not to be the missing slippers. As recently as two weeks ago, we received a telephone call from a psychic telling us that she was sure she knew where the slippers were.”
In the summer of 2017, however, the police received a credible tip about the slippers. Since the case led out of the state of Minnesota, the department contacted the F.B.I., which took the lead on the investigation. The slippers were recovered in a sting operation in Minneapolis earlier this summer. In a press release, the F.B.I. says that the theft involved an extortion attempt. Since the case is still ongoing, the agency has yet to release information about who took the shoes, how they were recovered or what the motivation of the theft may have been. Officials have called on anyone with knowledge of the theft to come forward. "There are certainly people out there who have additional knowledge regarding both the theft and the individuals responsible for concealing the slippers all these years,” Special Agent Christopher Dudley says. “We are asking that you come forward.”
After the shoes were apprehended, the F.B.I. brought them to the Smithsonian, which owns another pair of slippers used in the filming, to confirm their ruby slippers were the real deal. For the last two years, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has been analyzing and conserving a different pair of slippers donated to the museum in the late 1970s as part of a Kickstarter campaign. The F.B.I. brought the purloined pair to objects conservator Dawn Wallace for a look.
“We were able to spend two days looking at them and doing close examination as well as some analysis,” Wallace tells Smithsonian.com. “Not only did we have a physical examination, but we were able to conduct some technical analysis of the material to confirm that they were in fact consistent.”
Wallace says two other details cinched the case: First, it’s difficult to fake 80 years of aging on a pair of shoes. Second, the pair in the Smithsonian’s collection is actually a mismatched pair of ruby slippers, with the left sized "5C" and the right sized "5BC." The pair recovered by the F.B.I. turned out to be the mates of the museum’s shoes (which are set to go back on display in a climate-controlled case on October 19).
This isn’t the only caper involving the slippers. In fact, the whole history of Dorothy’s fancy footwear is based on a theft of sorts. As Thomas Stackpole previously reported for Smithsonian magazine, back in 1970 MGM Studios sold off its backlot in Culver City, California and auctioned off thousands of costume items and Hollywood memorabilia stored in its studios. Costume worker Kent Warner was told to find the stash of slippers used in The Wizard of Oz and select the nicest pair to be auctioned off. The others he was instructed to destroy. Following instructions, he selected a pair for the auction, which eventually made their way to the Smithsonian, but the rest he stuffed in his bag.
One pair he sold to Shaw and another he sold in 1981 to an anonymous buyer who ultimately sold the slippers to a consortium of Hollywood bigwigs in 2012; those shoes will be placed on display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures when it opens in 2019. Another pair had previously been given to a contest winner in 1940; those were sold them to a private collector in 1988. The fifth test pair, which did not appear in the film, were owned by the late Debbie Reynolds.
According to Medina at the New York Times, Shaw was eventually paid $800,000 for the loss of the shoes, which means the insurance company now owns the stolen merchandise. There’s no word yet on what is planned for the kicks, which could be worth a million dollars. It’s safe to say that whoever they end up with will surely click their heels in delight at the opportunity to own an iconic piece of Hollywood history.