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Catholic University’s auction of ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress uncertain after judge’s order

A 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. One of the most iconic outfits in American movie history is heading for auction, discovered in a box after decades of being thought lost. The dress was found last year at the Catholic University of America, and is on display in New York City before being put up for sale next month by Bonhams. (AP Photo/Katie Vasquez)

The auction of a dress worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” is uncertain, after a judge ordered Catholic University in D.C. and auction house Bonhams to not do anything with the dress until the case is heard.

The temporary restraining order comes amid a court battle over ownership of the dress between the family of the late priest to whom it was presented and the university.

The order from United States District Court Judge Paul Gardephe comes as the school prepares to auction off the dress, which could fetch more than $1 million.

The family of Gilbert Hartke, who was Catholic University’s longtime drama director, said the dress was given to him by actress Mercedes McCambridge as a personal gift after he helped her battle substance abuse. The university said that the dress was presented to Hartke in his official capacity as a professor of drama at the university.

Amin Al-Sarraf, an attorney for Catholic University, provided a copy and cited a 1973 article in The Washington Post, which claims Hartke wanted the dress displayed at the theater, which bears his name, on campus. He argued that the family’s complaint provides no evidence to the contrary.

“The university’s position is that the allegations in the lawsuit have no basis in law or fact because Catholic University is the rightful owner of the dress and Father Hartke’s estate does not have a property interest in it,” Al-Sarraf said in a statement.

Tony Lehman is the nephew of Barbara Ann Hartke, who is the 81-year-old niece of the late priest named in the lawsuit. Speaking on behalf of the family, he said they are “miffed” at how Catholic University is handling the situation.

“They’re just mischaracterizing what this is all about, and that this was a gift to Gilbert,” Lehman said.

The dress went missing on campus decades ago and was found in 2021 in the drama room. Lehman said the dress had been a part of family lore since it went missing, and he also said that before Gilbert Hartke died, he had had discussions with his family about the dress being a gift to him.

“The sale is probably not what Gilbert would want to have happened, and it’s sort of a mystery to the family why they’re proceeding at this rapid pace toward this end goal,” Lehman said.

He said the family should have been consulted once the dress was found, and should also have a say about what happens to the dress.

Al-Sarraf said the rediscovery of the dress was “well publicized” in 2021, but the school did not hear from the family until the lawsuit was filed.

Whether the auction continues will be up to the judge, who can choose to either allow it to take place or approve a temporary injunction in the case, which would halt the auction.

WTOP has reached out to Bonhams for comment.