The dress worn by actor Judy Garland in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz" is seen at The Catholic University of America in Washington July 7, 2021. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn
The dress worn by actor Judy Garland in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz" is seen at The Catholic University of America in Washington July 7, 2021. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

WASHINGTON • There is no telling when the iconic blue and white gingham dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" will find a "place like home."

A federal judge May 23 prevented The Catholic University of America from selling the iconic costume from the 1939 movie the day before it was scheduled to be auctioned. The preliminary injunction is in place until the costume's rightful ownership can be determined – a process that could take months or even years.

Judge Paul Gardephe of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said a lawsuit over the dress's ownership had enough merit to proceed and that the dress could not be sold while the case is pending in federal court in Manhattan.

A presale estimate of the monetary value of the dress listed it at $800,000 to $1.2 million according to the international auction house running the "Bonhams Classic Hollywood: Film and Television" sale in Los Angeles.

In April, Catholic University announced its plans to auction the dress and use the funds to develop a new film acting program at the university and endow a faculty chair.

Weeks later, Barbara Ann Hartke, the niece of Dominican Father Gilbert Hartke – the legendary founder and head of the university's drama department – filed suit saying the costume was part of her uncle's estate and not the school's property.

Father Hartke was given the dress in 1973 by actress Mercedes McCambridge, who was an artist-in-residence at the university that year. After his death in 1986, no one knew the whereabouts of the costume until it turned up last year amid renovations.

The family member's lawsuit claims the university "has no ownership interest in the dress as ... there is no documentation demonstrating decedent ever formally or informally donated the dress to Catholic University."

Catholic University attorneys said in their own filing against the lawsuit that the dress could not be considered part of the priest's estate because he had taken priestly vows "to never accept gifts in his personal capacity."

They also said in a statement reported by The Associated Press that they look forward to presenting their position "and the overwhelming evidence contradicting Ms. Hartke's claim to the court in the course of this litigation."

According to Bonhams, which estimated the value of the dress, the costume is one of four blue and white pinafore dresses made for the movie and one of only two existing dresses with the original white blouse.

This specific dress has been matched to the scene when Dorothy faced the wicked witch in her castle.

The dress, long rumored to be at the school, showed up without much Hollywood fanfare last summer in a white trash bag stashed high in a theater department's office.

Prior to its rediscovery, the dress had almost seemed legendary in the drama department. There were pictures of Father Hartke holding the costume and showing it to faculty members, but no one knew what became of it after he died.

Then last June, in preparation for renovation work to start on the university's Hartke Theatre, a department faculty member noticed a white trash bag above the faculty mail slots. Inside the bag was a green shoe-sized box whose contents needed no explanation for Matt Ripa.

Ripa, a lecturer and operations coordinator in the university's drama department, took one look inside and knew it was the dress he had spent years looking for in the theater's archives and storage closets and had essentially given up hope of finding.

He is pretty sure the dress turned up because a retired drama department professor discovered it while doing some pandemic cleaning out and sorting. A note taped to the bag simply said: "I found this in my office."

Although no one knows how McCambridge, a friend of Garland's, came to own the dress, it doesn't seem unusual that she gave it to Father Hartke.

Maria Mazzenga, curator of the university's American Catholic History Collections, noted the priest's flair for the unique, saying he also owned a silk jacket from India, a 6-foot-long aviator scarf and a Russian fur hat.

"People gave him clothes because they knew he would like it," she told Catholic News Service soon after the dress was found.

A 1973 article in the campus newspaper, The Tower, said McCambridge donated Garland's dress to be a "a source of hope, strength and courage" to the students.

The writer pointed out that in a small way it also answered Garland's expressed regret that she hadn't gone to college and her questions if "it all could have been different" if she had.

And for now, the dress raises its own questions to be solved in court.