Judge forces Catholic University to halt auction of ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress

A U.S. district judge in New York has put the brakes on Catholic University’s much-anticipated auction of a “Dorothy” dress worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The decision came Monday when an attorney for the niece of the priest — who received the dress as a gift in the 1970s — challenged the university’s claims that it owned the dress.

The judge’s decision was confirmed by both Catholic University and Anthony Scordo, an attorney representing the niece.

The judge’s granting of a preliminary injunction in the case on Monday came just a day before the school intended to auction off the dress, with the final bid expected to pull in more than a million dollars. The judge’s order prevents the dress from being auctioned until the case is resolved.

The niece — 81-year-old Barbara Ann Hartke of Wisconsin — contends her late uncle, Father Gilbert Hartke, received the dress as a personal gift from actress Mercedes McCambridge in 1973 after he helped her battle substance abuse.

Catholic University claims Father Hartke, the founder of its drama program, accepted the gift on behalf of the school. The university cites the priest’s vow of poverty as additional proof for why the dress belongs to the school.

Last week, the university filed a slew of documents, including probate papers, a vow of poverty contract apparently signed by Father Hartke, and signed affidavits reported from both a great-niece and a great-nephew supporting the university’s case.

On Friday, Scordo, an attorney for the niece behind the lawsuit, sought to defend her claims by taking issue with the evidence presented by CU.

Scordo claimed a document that apparently shows the priest signing away the rights to any “temporal goods” is not legally binding.

“The University here has failed to present to this court via any documentation, transcription or otherwise, what the decedent contractually agreed when he took the vows,” court documents stated.

Scordo also took issue with the university submitting newspaper articles about the dress and Father Hartke to prove ownership of the dress.

“The University relies primarily upon hearsay in the form of old newspaper articles and the like, to attempt to demonstrate the decedent’s donative intent, none of which are admissible and none of which show that he intended to permanently relinquish interest and control,” Scordo wrote.

Scordo also provides as evidence excerpts from a biography of Father Hartke, he said, “to counter the University’s skewed perspective presented by selectively presenting newspaper articles.”

And Scordo tried to poke holes in court-filed probate documents that were submitted claiming that the person who oversaw Father Hartke’s estate failed to compile an inventory of the estate and sent the probate notice to the niece with the wrong address, so it was never received.

The university has claimed the first communication over the dress with the niece was the filing of the lawsuit.

Scordo, when referencing the family members who support the school, claims while they have a right to take the stand they have, his client is the closest living relative to the priest. Scordo also called on the judge to call off the auction until this ownership battle goes to trial.

“For this court to permit the auction to proceed it would be allowing the auction of property that the University never owned,” He wrote.

A spokesperson for Catholic University, Amber Roseboom, said the school plans to use proceeds from a sale of the dress to endow a faculty position in its Rome School of Music, Drama and Art, “which it believes is in line with Mercedes McCambridge’s original intent and Father Gilbert Hartke’s desire to support and grow the University’s drama program.”

“We look forward to presenting our position, and the overwhelming evidence contradicting Ms. Hartke’s claim, to the court in the course of this litigation,” Roseboom said.

All sides are expected to be back in court on June 9.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2022 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up