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A Judge’s Dismissal of the Ownership Lawsuit Could Result in a High-profile Auction for the “Wizard of Oz” Dress

A federal judge in New York has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the ownership of a dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” The dress, which has been a part of Catholic University of America’s collection, was set to be auctioned, with expectations of fetching between $800,000 to $1.2 million. However, the planned auction was put on hold when Barbara Hartke, the niece of the late Rev. Gilbert Hartke, a longtime professor at Catholic University, filed a lawsuit asserting ownership.

Judge Paul Gardephe ruled that Barbara Hartke had failed to establish legal standing to assert an ownership right to the dress. Gilbert Hartke, who received the dress from actress Mercedes McCambridge, a friend of Garland’s, had taken a vow of poverty when he became a priest, renouncing ownership of “temporal goods.” The judge noted that Barbara Hartke’s lawsuit failed to demonstrate that she is a “real part of interest” and lacks standing to bring the action.

Gardephe gave Barbara Hartke 10 days to present an argument as to why he should not lift the injunction that has blocked the auction since mid-2022. Her lawyer plans to argue that it would be “premature to lift the injunction” while there may still be grounds to contest ownership.

The Catholic University of America welcomed the judge’s ruling and looks forward to reaching finality in the case in the coming weeks. The dress, believed to be one of six worn by Garland in the 1939 film, was discovered in 2021 in a trash bag above faculty mail slots during a renovation of the Hartke Theater. The university contracted with Bonhams auction house in March 2022 to sell the dress in New York.

Barbara Hartke’s lawyer hopes to have her appointed as an executor of her uncle’s estate, potentially allowing her to renew her legal claim to the dress’s ownership. However, Gardephe noted that it “appears doubtful” such a claim would succeed.

The planned auction of the iconic “Wizard of Oz” dress remains on hold pending further legal developments.