Rediscovered Wizard Of Oz dress sparks cutthroat legal battle

Rediscovered Wizard Of Oz dress sparks cutthroat legal battle

Another version of the dress, pictured at Bonham’s in 2015
photo: Timothy A. Clary (Getty Images)

Which classic Wizard of Oz quote fits a scenario where the niece of a deceased priest is battling a Catholic college for ownership of a valuable piece of movie memorabilia? Lions, tigers, and vows of poverty, oh my?

NBC News reported on Thursday that a judge blocked the auction of one of the blue-and-white checked gingham dresses worn by Judy Garland in the classic 1939 musical–a dress that was thought to have been lost to history until it was discovered packed away in a shoebox in the depths of Catholic University Of America.

Naturally, finding the dress (one of two remaining from the movie that still has the accompanying white blouse) was like striking gold for the school. In fact, Bonhams, the auction house Catholic engaged to sell the dress, listed a presale estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million for it, per NBC News.

But here’s where Catholic’s fairy tale hit a snag: 81-year-old Barbara Ann Hartke filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming that the dress belonged to her uncle, Father Gilbert Hartke, who was once head of the university’s drama department. As the priest died in 1986, Hartke argued that the dress should be hers as his closest living relative, especially given “there is no documentation demonstrating decedent ever formally or informally donated the dress to Catholic University,” according to the suit.

According to Hartke, the Self memorabilia was a gift to her uncle from actress Mercedes McCambridge. But the University countered that as a Dominican priest, Father Hartke had taken a vow “to never accept gifts in his personal capacity,” therefore the dress could n’t be considered part of an estate.

Long story short, the auction has been put on pause while the court sorts out whether the late priest could have indeed owned an extremely valuable piece of film history which had been missing for decades. (Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not lost in the basement of Catholic University anymore?) We’ll have to wait and see who ultimately gets the honor of… auctioning it off to the highest bidder.

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