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Catholic University Sued Over Judy Garland’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ Dress Auction

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 actor Bert Lahr’s eyes (1895 – 1967) (as the Cowardly Lion), while being 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 Archives | MoviePix | Getty Images

Forget ruby ​​slippers. Dorothy’s dress is now the most controversial item of clothing in the Land of Oz.

The niece of a long-dead priest is suing a New York auction house to block the sale of one of Judy Garland’s iconic Dorothy dresses from the classic 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

The dress had been missing for decades before being found at a Catholic university last year. The priest’s niece, Barbara Hartke, says the prized piece of Hollywood memorabilia belonged to her late uncle.

The blue and white gingham dress, believed to be one of six original dresses from the film, is set to go up for auction on May 24 and could fetch between $800,000 and $1.2 million, Bonhams New York said.

The dress was a gift from Mercedes McCambridge, an Academy Award-winning actress and friend of Garland who was artist-in-residence at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., between 1972 and 1973, to Dominican father Gilbert Hartke, founder of the school drama department. (McCambridge, by the way, is known for providing the voice of the demon in the 1973 religious horror classic “The Exorcist,” which was filmed and set in DC)

However, after Gilbert Hartke’s death in 1986, no one knew what became of the suit and it was considered lost. In June last year, the dress was found in a white trash bag above the faculty’s slot machines during a renovation of the university’s Hartke Theatre.

While the Catholic University has claimed ownership of the dress, Hartke’s 81-year-old niece maintains that the dress belongs to her estate because McCambridge “specifically and publicly” gave it to Gilbert Hartke.

Barbara Hartke, who lives in Wisconsin, named the university and the auction house as defendants in her lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan.

The suit seeks a court injunction that would prevent the auction from taking place.

Representatives for Bonhams and the Catholic University of America did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

–CNBC Dan Mangan contributed to this report.

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