Catholic University asks judge to let ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress auction go on as planned

From the yellow brick road, to a long-unopened box at Catholic University, to a New York City courtroom — the tug-of-war is intensifying over a dress worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” which is set to go on auction later this month.

The blue-and-white checkered dress is one of several worn by Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, in the film, which Catholic University said was given to the late Rev. Gilbert Hartke, who was a priest and longtime director of the D.C.’s school’s drama program.

However, Barbara Ann Hartke, who claims to be Hartke’s niece, contends that in 1973, actress Mercedes McCambridge gave the dress “specifically and publicly” to her uncle, not the school.

Barbara Hartke has filed a lawsuit against Catholic University and auction house Bonhams just ahead of the school’s planned auction of the dress, which could potentially fetch more than $1 million.

The blue and white checked gingham dress, worn by Judy Garland in the “Wizard of Oz,” hangs on display, Monday, April 25, 2022, at Bonhams in New York. (AP Photo/Katie Vasquez)

On Thursday, lawyers for Catholic University sent a letter to the judge, saying the woman’s claim of ownership is “groundless,” and her attempt to delay the auction is harming the school’s reputation, and its ability to sell the dress. As part of her lawsuit, Barbara Hartke seeks to postpone the auction until ownership of the dress is proven.

Attorney Shawn Brenhouse, representing the university in the case in Manhattan federal court, wrote Judge Paul Gardephe that Barbara Hartke’s allegations that the dress was given to Father Hartke in his personal capacity “are simply not true.”

“The University has an unrebutted presumption of ownership through possession of the Dress for nearly 50 years,” Brenhouse wrote. In addition, Father Hartke’s estate in 1987 didn’t list any tangible assets, despite widespread knowledge of the Dress at the time, and that probate proceedings at the time “recognized Farther Hartke’s vow of poverty as a Dominican priest, including a vow to never accept gifts in his personal capacity.”

Barbara Hartke’s request for a preliminary injunction and restraining order says she’d suffer irreparable harm if the auction isn’t delayed.

“The property’s value cannot be measured with anything comparable on the market,” the filing stated, and “the sentimental value to plaintiff and to the rest of the world cannot be measured.”

Hartke’s filing says there’s no rush to auction the dress: “Defendants cannot argue that the delay in auctioning the property will cause any harm whatsoever given the time that has elapsed since the death of decedent. There is no indication that the fair market value will experience any real change should the auction be postponed pending resolution of this litigation.”

The attorney for Catholic University disagreed, saying the lawsuit “has left the University only days to rebut the false statements and conclusory allegations.”

The university’s lawyer wrote: “By asserting these unsupported allegations and speaking to the press, Plaintiff prejudiced the Defendant’s ability to sell the Dress, despite months of effort to bring the item to auction in support of the University’s drama students.”

The attorneys for the university asked the judge to allow them to object to motions to delay, “and to permit the auction scheduled for May 24, 2022 to proceed.”

WTOP is seeking comment from Bonham’s. A pretrial conference is scheduled for July 21, which is after the auction is scheduled to take place.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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