“The slippers are widely viewed as among the most recognizable memorabilia in American film history.”
— U.S. Department of Justice
“I gotta go on trial. I don’t want to talk to you.”
— Terry Martin
The Maltese Falcon. The Batmobile. The sled from Citizen Kane. Luke Skywalker’s light saber. These are among the most valuable — and most expensive — pieces of film memorabilia ever sold. But it’s likely that no film prop is more instantly recognizable by as broad a group of people as the ruby slippers worn by the Wicked Witch of the East and Dorothy Gale in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
In L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel, the slippers are silver, but film producers, wanting to exploit both the emerging technology of color film, and the contrast of filming the Kansas scenes in sepia tones and the Oz scenes in Technicolor, decided to make the film’s shoes an unmistakable vivid red. In fact, the original script says “silver shoes,” but in the final script revisions in the spring of 1938, the word “silver” is crossed out and “ruby” is written in above it. It is not known for certain how many pairs of the shoes were made for the film (producer Melvin LeRoy said it was “five to 10”), but it is known that five verifiable pairs survive. One pair was fancier than those used in the film and in an “Arabian” style. A second pair contains the word “double” in the lining and is thought to either be the second pair made or alternatively to have been worn by Garland’s stunt double. A third pair, known as the “Witch’s Shoes,” is thought to have been on the feet of the Wicked Witch and again worn by Garland in the heel clicking scene — complete with circular scuff marks from the clicking motion. These shoes say “#7, Judy Garland” in the lining.
A fourth pair is called “The People’s Shoes” and is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In a 1988 Los Angeles Times article about the complex and mysterious history of the shoes, the museum said that more than five million people came to see them each year. These shoes are actually mismatched. One is a size 5C and the other a size 5 BC.
Which brings us to the final pair — the one that contains the opposite shoes from the Smithsonian pair. That’s the pair that gives us a legal connection to the present day. How? Because that pair had been on display at the Judy Garland museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, until an August night in 2005. That’s when a thief smashed a window, entered the museum, and stole the shoes — all without setting off an alarm or leaving behind any fingerprints.
And the shoes remained missing for 13 years. In the summer of 2017, a man contacted the insurance company that held the policy on the slippers and said he had information about them. The FBI determined that the report was an extortion scheme, and a year later conducted a sting operation that recovered the slippers. The Smithsonian examined the recovered slippers and determined that not only were they real, but they were the mismatched sister to the pair the museum held.
At the time of the sting operation, the FBI said that they were withholding charges because they believed that multiple people had to be involved and wanted to bust the entire ring. Last week, a federal grand jury finally issued an indictment — but just one — against a 76 year-old man by the name of Terry Martin, who lives just a short distance from the museum. What makes the charge a felony? The indictment is for Theft of a Major Artwork pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 668, which covers the theft, from a museum, of either an object over 100 years old, or one worth more than $100,000. The slippers, insured originally for $1 million, are now estimated to be worth $3.5 million. The crime carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
It’s possible that the Department of Justice has initially charged only Martin in the hope that he will give them the information necessary to charge others involved in the conspiracy, and that the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence will lead him to cooperate. The museum’s shoes, meanwhile, remain in the custody of the FBI, where they will continue to be held as evidence until the case is resolved.
The Smithsonian’s pair are reported to be deteriorating from age, and the museum is raising money to research preservation methods. The post-filming saga of the slippers is so fascinating that it has spurred a book devoted to the subject (and film memorabilia more generally) by Rhys Thomas, titled “The Ruby Slippers of Oz.”
No court date has been reported for Martin, though an arraignment will likely happen soon. And if we learn nothing else from this story, we can take from it that the FBI has a designated “art crime team,” which conducted the sting operation that recovered Dorothy’s shoes. Some day those shoes will make it back to the Garland Museum because, after all, “There’s no place like home.”
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette, a sister paper of the Galion Inquirer, since 2005.