When Matt Ripa, a lecturer in the Catholic University of America’s drama department, opened a shoe box stashed in a trash bag atop the school’s faculty mailboxes last June, he was shocked to find an instantly recognizable garment. Yellowed with age, the blue-and-white gingham gown was identical to the one worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz—and as Ripa soon realized, it wasn’t simply a copy, but rather an authentic dress donned by the actress during the filming of the iconic 1939 movie.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime find—and one that raised high hopes at the university, which planned to auction it for upward of $1 million. Now, though, a dispute about the true ownership of the dress has halted the auction and put the historic costume in what could be months, or even years, of legal limbo.
Staff and students at the Washington, D.C. university had long traded reverent whispers about the dress, which was reportedly gifted to Father Gilbert Hartke, then-head of the school’s drama department, by actress Mercedes McCambridge in 1973. Until Ripa’s discovery, the gown’s exact location was a mystery; as Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw, dean of Catholic University’s school of music, drama and art, tells the New York Times’ Johnny Diaz, “The dress was a legend, but no one had seen it since the late 1980s.”
Proceeds from the planned auction Tuesday at Bonhams in Los Angeles would have funded a faculty chair endowment and the establishment of a new film acting program at the university. But a last-minute ruling by a federal judge halted these plans, prompting Bonhams to abruptly withdraw the dress from its Classic Hollywood Film and Television auction.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Barbara Ann Hartke, the 81-year-old niece of Father Hartke, earlier this month. According to court documents obtained by WTOP’s Mike Murillo, Barbara alleges that McCambridge gave the dress “specifically and publicly” to her uncle, not the school, as thanks for “his counseling and support” during her struggles with alcohol and substance abuse. As Hartke’s closest living heir, Barbara contends that she is the rightful owner of the iconic costume.
“I was just surprised after all this time, here it had been found, and here it is being rushed off to the auction house,” Barbara tells the New York Post’s Kathianne Boniello. “I just want to know who has ownership over this. … I’d like to see the documentation.”
United States District Judge Paul Gardephe’s Monday ruling allows Barbara’s case to continue in federal court and prohibits the “sale or transfer of the dress pending the outcome of this litigation,” per the Washington Post’s Shayna Jacobs.
“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,” says Shawn Brenhouse, an attorney for Catholic University, in a statement to the Post. “We look forward to presenting our position, and the overwhelming evidence contradicting Ms. Hartke’s claim.”
In response to Barbara’s initial filing, Catholic University’s legal team offered the court its own evidence of its claim to the dress. As Murillo reported for WTOP earlier this month, a grandniece and grandnephew of Hartke provided signed affidavits affirming that the priest would have wanted the dress to belong to and benefit the school.
Lawyers also pointed out that Hartke, as a Dominican priest, took a vow of poverty, renounced “temporal goods” and returned all of his paychecks to the religious order. (Hartke’s community of Dominican friars provided a separate affidavit renouncing any claim to the dress.) According to a 1979 newspaper article cited by the university, gifts received by Hartke became the “monastery’s, the community’s or the drama school’s property (which includes Judy Garland’s dress in The Wizard of Oz and much of Claire Booth Luce’s library).”
McCambridge, an Oscar-winning actress who counted Garland as a “close friend,” gifted the Dorothy Gale dress in the early 1970s, when she was an artist-in-residence at Catholic University’s drama department. As the actress told Liza Lutz, a reporter for the Tower student newspaper, in 1973, Garland, who publicly struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism, often said that “it all could have been different” if she’d attended college. McCambridge donated the costume in hopes that it would serve as “a source of hope, strength and courage to the students.”
When Ripa pulled out the shoe box containing the dress on June 7, 2021, he found a note from a by-then retired colleague that simply read, “I found this.” Per the Post’s Paul Duggan, the drama professor had discovered the dress while preparing for his retirement. He left it for Ripa to find with the admittedly understated message affixed to the box.
To verify the garment’s authenticity, university staff turned to Ryan Lintelman, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) and an expert on Wizard of Oz memorabilia. Lintelman collaborated with conservators Dawn Wallace and Sunae Park Evans to analyze the dress, which they identified as one of just six of its kind “that have a good claim” on being the real deal, the curator told Smithsonian magazine’s Nora McGreevy last July.
As court filings referenced by the Post’s Jacobs state, Barbara’s lawyer, Anthony Scordo III, contended that McCambridge publicly gifted the gown to Hartke, making it “an asset of [the] decedent’s estate.” By allowing the case to continue, Gardephe rejected Catholic University’s counterargument: that Barbara’s interest in the garment is wholly financial. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for June 9.