Follow the Road to Ownership

Yellow brick lawsuit

Almost fifty years after a dress was gifted to a priest at The Catholic University of America, a relative is challenging the determined ownership of the costume. The significance of the blue and white gingham dress and paired white blouse is legendary. Judy Garland’s acquired costume in the iconic Wizard of Oz is one of four total dresses and one of two dresses with the matching blouse known to still be in existence. Actress Mercedes McCambridge, who died in 2004, gave the costume to Rev. Gilbert Hartke in 1973 as a ‘thank you’ for helping her through her substance use issues. Now, the priest’s niece, Barbara Hartke, contends that the dress belongs to her, as the heir of her uncle’s estate.

Speculation over the true ownership of the dress has halted plans for Catholic University to sell the movie memorabilia at auction. The estimated selling point was projected to reach $1.2 million; and all proceeds would have helped fund the university’s drama department. Rev. Hartke formerly held the highest position within the drama department, but passed away in the 1980’s. Until last year, the dress was recognized as lost; however, a retired drama professor rediscovered the dress in an old box in his office. It was assumed that the dress belonged to the university. The lawsuit, filed in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, may permanently stifle that belief.

Barbara Hartke’s legal counsel is seeking an injunction to stop the sale of the dress. The plaintiff argues that upon rediscovery of the lost costume, the university failed to properly notify her as a beneficiary. According to her argument, Mercedes McCambridge, who was rumored to have acquired the dress during an MGM inventory clearance, publicly gifted the dress to her uncle, not to Catholic University. Therefore, the item should be treated as part of her late uncle’s estate. Barbara Hartke and her legal team also challenge the monetary value of the dress and believe it could sell for more than $1.2 million.