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

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NEW YORK — A federal judge on Monday blocked Catholic University of auctioning a gingham dress worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” a day before it was set to go up for bids some expected to generate up to $1.2 million for the school’s drama department.

US District Judge Paul Gardephe ruled: that the lawsuit of a Wisconsin woman who claimed she owned the dress had enough merit to continue, 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 delayed for months or years. Gardephe said he banned “any sale or transfer of the dress pending the outcome of this lawsuit.”

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

In 1973, the dress was given as a gift to Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, the longtime head of the Catholic University drama department who died in 1986. On behalf of the school, the auction house Bonhams was 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, filed a lawsuit to block the sale after learning about the plans to auction off the dress from news reports, including on NBC’s “Today” show. The The 81-year-old retired schoolteacher has said she had a close relationship with her late uncle and that the dress has sentimental value.

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Catholic University countered that the dress was donated to the institution, and that Gilbert Hartke’s vow of poverty as a Dominican priest means that he had no intention of personally owning anything of value.

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

“The court’s decision to maintain the status quo was tentative and did not address the merits of Barbara Hartke’s claim to the dress,” Brenhouse said. “We look forward to presenting our position, and the overwhelming evidence to contradict Ms Hartke’s allegation, to the court in the course of this trial.”

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

Hartke didn’t take the memento with him when he retired decades ago, and the dress was in the possession of other employees until it was apparently disappeared. Last year, teacher Matt Ripa found the classic film’s collector’s item hidden above staff mailboxes.

Barbara Ann Hartke’s attorney Anthony Scordo III said Monday he believed the judge paid attention to written arguments in the case. He walked out of the courthouse and said he… hadn’t talked to his client about getting the development over yet.

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Scordo argued in court documents that Barbara Ann Hartke would be “damaged beyond repair” if the auction went ahead, and that she could prove her uncle’s estate was the rightful owner of the property.

McCambridge donated the dress “specifically and publicly” to Hartke, “saying the dress is therefore a property of the deceased’s estate,” Scordo argued in court files. He noted that McCambridge and Hartke had a close relationship.

A Bonhams spokesperson declined to comment.

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

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

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