With the ruby slippers found, America regains part of its cultural soul

The prized pumps are an iconic piece of American and Hollywood history.
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They are the "Holy Grail of Hollywood memorabilia" and their value is measured in the millions.

The Tuesday press conference announcing that one of only four pairs of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland's Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in existence had been found was anything but understated.

FBI Minneapolis special agent in charge Julie Sanborn revealed the famous slippers with a theatrical flourish worthy of Oz himself, lifting a drape covering the iconic, sequined pumps that despite 13 years on the run appeared in pristine condition.

Sanborn, North Dakota U.S. Attorney Chris Meyers and Grand Rapids Poice Chief Scott Johnson were similarly dramatic in their descriptions of the slippers, with Sanborn calling them a "treasured piece of Americana," while Meyers dubbed them "an iconic symbol of one of America's greatest and best-loved movies."

It's hard to argue with their sentiments.

Rhys Thomas, the author of "The Ruby Slippers of Oz" who had flown out from California at the invitation of the FBI, told reporters that they represent "The Holy Grail" of movie memorabilia.

The last pair of ruby slippers that went up for auction sold for $2 million, and Thomas now estimates the pair stolen from The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids in 2005 could be worth anything up to $7 million.

The history of the 4th pair

Of the four pairs worn by Garland known to be in existence, one is in the National Museum of American History in D.C, another at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, and the other is in the hands of private owners.

But the pair recovered in Minneapolis, which Garland possibly worn during some of her walking scenes during the movie, has a tumultuous and intriguing history.

After filming wrapped on The Wizard of Oz, Thomas says that the 4th pair was tucked away on a Hollywood studio lot for 30 years.

That was until they came into the hands of Kent Warner, whom Thomas describes as "The Robin Hood of Hollywood," known for scouring studio lots for forgotten (and undervalued) pieces of movie memorabilia that he would sell on a growing black market.

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Warner lifted the slippers – though he would have seen it as liberating them – and in 1970, the year after Garland's overdose death, sold them to collector Michael Shaw for $2,500.

Shaw was not shy in sharing his prized possession, regularly loaning the slippers out to museums for display, among them The Judy Garland Museum in the actor's hometown of Grand Rapids.

It was from there that they were stolen and once again thought to be lost, until an undercover sting operation in July led to their recovery and triumphant return – via authentication checks at the Smithsonian in D.C. – to Minnesota on Tuesday morning. 

A theft and the search

In the early hours of August 28, 2005, a piece of America's cultural soul was stolen.

Thieves had broken into the Judy Garland Museum and taken the on-loan slippers, sparking a frantic and extensive search led by the Grand Rapids Police Department.

At Tuesday's press conference, Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson described how his office was inundated with tips and potential leads, some worthy, some less so.

"Our department followed up on each and every lead we received over the years," he said. "We had everything from 'they are nailed to a wall in a roadside diner in Missouri' to 'I was with my boyfriend when he threw them into a water-filled iron ore pit."

The iron ore pit claim was a common one, Johnson said. In fact, the rumors were so strong that it sparked regular searches by diving teams in the Tioga Mine Pit.

Then last year, the department received a tip that was genuinely credible, after someone reached out to the Markel Corporation, the insurance company that now owns the slippers (after paying out to Shaw when they were stolen), and attempted to extort them in exchange for their return.

The trail led to North Dakota, for reasons not yet made clear, prompting Grand Rapids PD to reach out to the FBI to get involved. This ultimately to an undercover sting operation in July that yielded the slippers after 13 years in the wilderness.

The almost 80-year-old pumps were sent to the Smithsonian in D.C. so they could be compared to the pair there, and after careful analysis it was determined that they are indeed the genuine article.

"The ruby slippers are the Holy Grail of Hollywood memorabilia," Thomas said on Tuesday.

Not only do they evoke the magic of the slippers as worn by Dorothy, he says, but "They connect an iconic star to an iconic movie that everybody seems to remember."

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