Catholic University insists it’s the owner of Judy Garland’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress, not priest’s niece

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A lobby card from the film ‘The Wizard Of Oz,’ shows a film still of a scene in which American actress Judy Garland (1922 – 1969) (as Dorothy) wipes tears from the eyes of actor Bert Lahr (1895 – 1967) (as the Cowardly Lion), while watched by Jack Haley (1898 – 1979) (as the Tin Man) (left), and Ray Bolger (1904 – 1987) (as the Scarecrow), 1939. The film was directed by Victor Fleming.
Hulton Archive | Moviepix | Getty Images

The Catholic University of America won’t surrender Dorothy’s dress — without a court fight.

The university insisted in a new statement to CNBC that it — and not the estate of a late priest and drama professor — is the “rightful owner” of a once long-lost dress worn by Judy Garland in the classic film “The Wizard of Oz.”

The Washington, D.C., university also said that a new lawsuit filed by the niece of the Rev. Gilbert Hartke, which aims to block an upcoming auction of the blue-and-white gingham dress, “has no basis in law or fact.”

Gilbert Hartke had been gifted the dress in 1973.

The school’s statement came just as a lawyer for Hartke’s 81-year-old niece asked a federal judge in New York City in a new court filing to issue a temporary injunction that would at least postpone the May 24 auction of the dress on the university’s behalf. The dress is expected to fetch as much as $1 million or more at an auction held by Bonham’s in Los Angeles.

Hartke, as a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Dominican Order, “had taken a vow of poverty,” the school noted in the statement.

“He vowed not to receive or accept any gifts as his own personal property, and at the time of his death did not have any tangible items in his estate,” Catholic University said.

“In fact, an inventory of Fr. Hartke’s estate conducted in 1987 listed nothing of value in personal possessions or any tangible property of any sort, despite other documented gifts to Fr. Hartke for the benefit of Catholic University over the years.

“Catholic University is the rightful owner of the dress, and Fr. Hartke’s estate does not have a property interest in it,” the school said.

In a court motion filed Friday that seeks a temporary injunction barring the auction, a lawyer for Hartke’s niece, Barbara Ann Hartke, said that the Wisconsin woman will suffer “irreparable injury” if the Bonham’s auction is allowed to proceed before the resolution of her suit claiming ownership of the dress by the estate of her uncle.

“Because plaintiff’s asset is in Defendant’s possession and will be sold to the highest bidding party, plaintiff will effectively lose the ability to reclaim possession of hers and, or the estate’s property once the auction takes place,” Barbara Hartke’s lawyer, Anthony Scordo, also argued in his filing in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Scordo also wrote, “There is a strong public interest for the court to enter an injunction here.”

“This property is … important to the American public for reasons that are articulated in the Verified Complaint. The fact that an important part of Americana will not be in the public realm and be lost forever,” Scordo wrote.

The dress is one of only two dresses known to still exist of the several created for Garland to wear in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.” The other dress was auctioned in 2015 by Bonham’s for more than $1.5 million.

Judge Paul Gardephe has not yet ruled on the motion seeking a temporary injunction. Neither Bonham’s nor Scordo has responded to requests for comment.

CNBC revealed earlier this week that Barbara Hartke had sued the university and Bonham’s after she said she only recently learned from press reports that the dress gifted to her uncle was soon going up for auction after having been lost for decades.

The dress was found last July in a trash bag in the university’s drama department.

Catholic University wants to sell the dress to raise money for its drama school, which Gilbert Hartke founded.

The priest was given the dress in 1973 by his friend, the actress Mercedes McCambridge, who credited him with helping her deal with her alcoholism.

Around the time McCambridge gave him the dress, she was acting as the voice of the demon Pazuzu in the horror movie “The Exorcist,” which was filmed in Washington.

She previously had won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1949 for her performance in “All the King’s Men,” and was nominated in the same category for her role in “Giant,” which starred Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson.

Gilbert Hartke himself was a prominent figure in Washington theater who “was very much the man about town,” comfortable at the White House and in D.C.’s power restaurants as he rubbed elbows with the capital city’s political and social elite, The Washington Post noted in his 1986 obituary when he died at age 79.

Hartke also was one of two Catholic priests asked by the widow of President John Kennedy to stay with his body at the White House before his funeral after his 1963 assassination.

But despite his high profile, Hartke as a priest was bound by his vow of poverty, Catholic University noted in its statement Friday stating that the school is the legal owner of the dress.

“Catholic University understands the solemnity of these vows, as did McCambridge and Fr. Hartke at the time of the donation to Catholic University,” the statement said. “Consistent with these vows, the dress was a gift to further Fr. Hartke’s important legacy of building the School of Drama here at Catholic University.

“The University’s research of contemporaneous sources and the evidence fully demonstrates McCambridge’s intent to donate the dress to support the drama students at Catholic University. The complaint provides no evidence to the contrary.”

The university said that when the dress was discovered last summer, “Catholic University did not reach out to the family of Fr. Hartke because the dress was gifted to Catholic University for the benefit of the students in the Rome School.”

Barbara Hartke’s lawyer Scordo, in his motion seeking to block the auction, argued that delaying the planned sale of the dress until her lawsuit is resolved will not harm Catholic University or Bonham’s financially.

“Entry of an injunction here is warranted and will place no undue burden on the defendants,” Scordo wrote.

“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.”

But Scordo said Barbara Hartke “will be the party harmed here should this auction not be enjoined.”

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