Wizard of Oz Dorothy dress lawsuit tossed by judge

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.

Katie Vasquez | AP

This “Wizard of Oz” dress could be off to see the auction house very soon.

A federal judge in New York on Monday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the ownership of a dress worn by Judy Garland when she played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” which for more than a year had held up a planned auction of the storied garment by The Catholic University of America.

Judge Paul Gardephe gave the plaintiff, Barbara Hartke, 10 days to present an argument as to why he should not lift an injunction that has blocked the auction since mid-2022.

In his ruling, Gardephe wrote that Barbara Hartke had failed to establish that she had legal standing to assert an ownership right in the “Oz” dress, which previously was owned by the Wisconsin woman’s uncle, the late Rev. Gilbert Hartke, a longtime professor at Catholic University. The school, located in Washington, D.C., says it is the owner of the dress.

Anthony Scordo III, Barbara Hartke’s lawyer, told CNBC on Monday that he hopes to soon have her appointed as an executor of her uncle’s estate, which could allow her to renew her legal claim to the dress’s ownership.

“We’re not out of the box yet,” said Scordo.

He also plans to argue to the judge that it would be “premature to lift the injunction” blocking the auction while Barbara still might have grounds to contest the ownership.

In a statement, Catholic University said that it “is very encouraged and pleased that the motion to dismiss was granted and looks forward to reaching finality in this case in the coming weeks.”

Gilbert Hartke, who had served as chairman of the university’s drama department, received the blue and white dress from the Oscar-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, who was a friend of Garland’s. The dress is believed to be one of six worn by Garland in the 1939 film. Garland died in 1969; McCambridge in 2004.

After Father Hartke died in 1986, the dress was missing for decades, but then was found in 2021 in a trash bag above faculty mail slots during a renovation of the Hartke Theater at the university.

Catholic University contracted with the Bonhams auction house in March 2022 to sell the dress in New York. The dress was expected to fetch between $800,000 to $1.2 million at auction.

But that sale was put on hold when Barbara Hartke sued both the university and Bonhams in Manhattan federal court last year.

Gardephe’s ruling Monday dismissing her claim noted that Father Hartke had taken a vow of poverty when he became a priest of the Dominican order in 1933. In that vow, Hartke renounced his ownership of “temporal goods,” and agreed to turn over his salary to the College of the Immaculate Conception.

The judge wrote that Barbara Hartke’s lawsuit, which asserts that the dress belongs to her uncle’s estate, failed to plead facts demonstrating that she is a “real part of interest.”

The ruling also notes that there is nothing in the court record to show that she has been appointed a personal representative of her uncle’s estate despite her having petitioned the D.C. Probate Court for that role.

As a result, “she lacks standing to bring this action,” Gardephe wrote.

The judge left the door open for Barbara Hartke to amend her lawsuit to make another argument for legal standing. But Gardephe noted that “it appears doubtful” that such a claim would succeed.

Barbara Hartke’s lawyer Scordo told CNBC that received the case files for her uncle’s estate from Probate Court only in October, long after they were requested, and that there has been no ruling yet on her application to be appointed personal representative for the estate.

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