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 — Dorothy's refrain, "There's no place like home," in "The Wizard of Oz" also could be echoed by her blue and white gingham dress from the 1939 movie.

The dress, which turned up last summer at The Catholic University of America after it was missing for nearly 40 years, is about to get a new home as the university plans to sell it and use the proceeds to help establish the school's new film acting program.

But now there is a wrinkle in this plan with a lawsuit trying to stop the sale.

Barbara Hartke, the niece of Dominican Father Gilbert Hartke -- the legendary founder and head of the university's drama department who was given the dress -- filed a lawsuit May 3 in a New York federal court claiming the dress belongs to her uncle's estate, not to the university.

"The university is reviewing the allegations made in the lawsuit at this time and will provide additional information after a thorough review of the complaint," a spokesperson for the school told CNBC.

The costume, worn by Judy Garland, was given to the theater department head as a gift in 1973, but no one knew its whereabouts from the late 1980s until it was discovered during a campus theater renovation last year.

Now somewhat faded and yellowed, the dress is estimated to be worth $800,000 to $1.2 million. It will be auctioned May 24 in Los Angeles at the "Bonhams Classic Hollywood: Film and Television" sale run by the international auction house.

According to Bonhams, which estimated the monetary 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.

The Catholic University dress has been matched to a specific scene when Dorothy faced the wicked witch in her castle.

Mercedes McCambridge, a Hollywood actress and artist-in-residence at Catholic University in 1973, gave the dress to Father Hartke.

"Discovering this historic dress was a memorable moment for The Catholic University of America and we are proud to present it for auction, so that the next collector can own a piece of history," said Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw, dean of the university's Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama and Art.

"While parting with this dress is bittersweet, the proceeds are going to help support future generations training for professional careers in theater. It might just be that the funding helps to prepare the next Mercedes McCambridge or Judy Garland," she said in a statement.

Documentation indicates the dress was given to Father Hartke to support the school's drama department, like what school officials said proceeds of the auction will do. The money will not only develop a new film acting program but also will endow a faculty chair.

"Important costumes from this iconic movie rarely appear on the auction market and to be able to pinpoint the scene in which this was worn by Judy Garland is thrilling," said Helen Hall, director of popular culture at Bonhams in Los Angeles.

The other Dorothy dress with a blouse was sold by Bonhams in 2015 for over $1.5 million. Catholic University's dress can be seen at Bonhams New York April 23-29 and at Bonhams Los Angeles May 20-24 before the May 24 sale.

The dress, long rumored to be owned by 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 dress and showing it to faculty members, but no one knew what became of it after the priest died in 1986.

Then last June, in preparation for renovation work to start on the university's Hartke Theater, 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 began laughing hysterically because there 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.

The priest, a playwright and director who started the university's theater department in 1937, also was instrumental in Washington theater efforts and civil rights advocacy. He was friends with U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan and was one of two priests called to stay with the body of President John F. Kennedy at the White House prior to his funeral.

McCambridge won an Oscar for best supporting actress in "All the King's Men" in 1949 and was nominated for an Oscar for the 1956 film "Giant," but she became perhaps even more well-known for being the voice of the demon child in "The Exorcist" in 1973, even though Warner Brothers failed to credit her for the role.

A 1973 article in the campus newspaper, The Tower, said she 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.

"Judy's fantasy has come true. A real part of her has made it to college," the article said.

And now, that part of her -- a faded dress -- will likely help the school in ways she would have never dreamed.