An iconic piece of film history is now contested property in a legal struggle. (image courtesy Bonhams)

There’s no place like probate court! What was set to be a routine auction process for a special piece of Hollywood memorabilia has taken a cinematic plot twist, as legal questions have been raised regarding the ownership of the rare and recently rediscovered “Dorothy Dress” — one of a mere handful of remaining original costumes worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

The dress, expected to fetch up to $1.2 million, came to Bonhams Los Angeles last month by way of the Catholic University of America (CU) in Washington, DC. It had been gifted to the clearly beloved former head of the school’s drama department, Reverend Gilbert Hartke, by Mercedes McCambridge, a Hollywood actor and artist-in-residence at the University in 1973 and close friend of Garland’s. Lost in the school’s archives since the 1980s, the rediscovered dress was intended for sale to fund a faculty chair endowment and establish a new film acting program at the university.

Now those plans, and the auction, are on indefinite hold, as a lawsuit filed by Barbara Ann Hartke, the 81-year-old niece of Reverend Hartke, has raised the question of who exactly was the recipient of McCambridge’s gift — and who therefore retains ownership of the dress today.

“She [McCambridge] was obviously a close confidant of Judy Garland and the gift of the dress to Gilbert V. Hartke was to thank Hartke for his counseling and support,” the lawsuit states, according to WTOP News. It is contended that McCambridge had a long-term personal relationship with Reverend Hartke and offered him the dress in appreciation for his help in the actress’s battle with alcohol and substance abuse — a struggle which also notoriously afflicted Garland and took her life just a couple weeks after her 47th birthday.

At the time of the donation, McCambridge told CU’s student newspaper Tower that Garland had often said “it all could have been different” if she’d attended college. McCambridge donated the costume in hopes that it would serve as “a source of hope, strength and courage to the students.”

While Barbara Ann Hartke’s claim on the dress is contentious, it has merited enough legitimacy to halt the sale of the iconic gingham pinafore and puff-sleeved shirt while the court investigates — a process that could take months or years to resolve.

Archive photo of Reverend Gilbert Hartke holding the dress (image courtesy Catholic University)

“I was just surprised after all this time, here it had been found, and here it is being rushed off to the auction house,” Hartke said in an interview. “I just want to know who has ownership over this … I’d like to see the documentation.”

Lawyers for the university argue that Gilbert Hartke took a vow of poverty, meaning he didn’t receive or accept any gifts as his own personal property, and that McCambridge donated the dress to Hartke in his capacity as the university’s drama teacher to benefit the students of the drama program. CU’s legal team is offering evidence that includes signed affidavits from a grandniece and grandnephew of Hartke that affirm that the priest would have wanted the dress to belong to and benefit the school, as well as a 1979 newspaper article that states gifts received by Hartke became the “monastery’s, the community’s or the drama school’s property (which includes Judy Garland’s dress in The Wizard of Oz and much of Claire Booth Luce’s library).”

“The Court’s decision to preserve the status quo was preliminary and did not get to the merits of Barbara Hartke’s claim to the dress,” Shawn Brenhouse, an attorney for Catholic University, told Hyperallergic. “We look forward to presenting our position, and the overwhelming evidence contradicting Ms. Hartke’s claim, to the Court in the course of this litigation.”

There’s no pot of gold over this rainbow: Excitement over finding a beloved piece of Wizard of Oz history has now dissolved into a situation that’s going to take a lot of brains, heart, courage — and most of all, lawyers — to resolve.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....