In 1970, MGM's wardrobe department decided to auction off their props and costumes. Kent Warner, gave one pair of Judy Garland's ruby slippers to be auctioned and he stole the rest. A collector named Michael Shaw ended up with a pair and eventually loaned them to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, MN, but they were stolen in 2005. There were many theories about what happened to the shoes, but they were located and recovered by the FBI in 2018.
Judy Garland's ruby slippers were wrapped in a Turkish towel and they were discovered in a basement of MGM's Wardrobe Department in 1970. The shoes were covered in dust and cobwebs and some sequins were missing, but they could still be publicized. The shoes were sent to Malone Studio Service where each sequin was cleaned by hand and when the shoes were returned, they were placed in a safe. At this time, MGM was auctioning off most of their props and costumes and the ruby slippers were the main attraction. No one that worked on the film actually had any interest in bidding on those slippers. Jack Haley said they costumes were hell. You wanted to run away from them, not buy them. There were two prospective buyers at the auction. Debbie Reynolds wanted the ruby slippers and so did Mayor Martin Lotz of Culver City. Mayor Lotz begged people not to bid against him and said he was doing this for the children. He wanted to save one object that to them is a symbol that represents everything is pure and clean in a world of magic and make-believe. He had raised money in pledges to get the shoes. Debbie Reynolds, the grandma from Halloweentown tried to buy the whole auction for a Hollywood of Fame, a museum of Hollywood artifacts. Her bid wasn't high enough, she had to borrow $100k from a bank and was trying to get as many important items as she could. There was a third bidder from the Carolina Caribbean Corporation. They have a theme park called The Land of Oz. These three people were immediately outbid at the auction. The ruby slippers sold for $15k to a lawyer named Richard Wonder who was bidding for an anonymous client.
Within 48 hours of the auction, there was a huge controversy over the authenticity of the shoes. The producer says there must have been 5 to 10 pairs of shoes that were actually used for the film. Judy Garland wore a size 4B shoe and the auctioned slippers were labeled with that. Debbie Reynolds had the same size foot and when she tried them on, they were too big for her. She said they fit like a size 6 which is exactly what Judy Garland's stunt double wore. Kent Warner gave one pair of shoes for the auction, then he kept the rest for himself and later sold a pair to Debbie Reynolds. Or so he thought. Debbie hired an assistant to purchase the shoes and the man paid $2500 and kept them for himself. This man was Michael Shaw and these are the very shoes that are later stolen. Kent Warner built a special box in his home for the shoes. He admired them secretly with his friends for many years, but ended up selling them. He realized they were consuming everyone's attention. People would come over just to see the shoes, not to see him. He began to realize that the shoes hold a certain power...maybe they're magic shoes because everyone believes they are.
Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids, MN. Her family moved when she was just four years old, but each year, the Judy Garland Museum hosts a Wizard of Oz Festival in her home town. The whole community participates and people dress up as their favorite character from the movie. A collector named Michael Shaw, the guy that snaked the shoes from Debbie Reynolds, loaned the slippers to the museum, but they were stolen in August 2005 when someone broke in during the middle of the night. I know we pretty much say this in every story, but the surveillance camera wasn't working that night. A staff member arrived in the morning to open the museum and noticed the alarm system read “auxiliary” which was a setting she had never seen before. She turned the system on and off a few times until the screen reset and didn't think anything else of it until she turned the display lights on and saw the shattered emergency door window. Only the shoes were stolen, nothing else. Michael Shaw was extremely upset. He said, “I literally felt like I was hit in the stomach when I got the call. My knees buckled, and I went right down on the floor. I had taken care of those shoes for 35 years!” The museum's co-founder, Jon Miner said, “I cried. I couldn't believe this happened to us because it was the stupidest thing.”
The police said the security at the museum was almost comical. The alarm for the door that was broken into was disabled and the security camera over the shoes was turned off. People believed that this was an inside job, but the museum staff was fully cooperative in the investigation. Grand Rapids is a very small town and the budget for the museum was even smaller. Museum attendance had been trailing off over the years and unfortunately, they didn't upgrade the security equipment and they always turned the security camera off at night. A lot of the scrutiny has always revolved around the emergency door. It was alarmed, but the system didn't send a dispatch to the police. The museum staff said they had a lot of problems with kids opening the emergency exit doors and setting the alarms off, so they disarmed the doors during the day and believed that when they armed the building at night, the door would be armed again, but that wasn't the case. There was a motion detector above the emergency exit door that also failed to go off that night. There wasn't any motion detected in the gallery, but it had a blind spot. Someone could come in through the door, slide along the wall, and head straight into the gallery without triggering the alarm. Rumors were immediately flying around town that the shoes could have been thrown into a lake or river, but the best location would be an abandoned mine pit that. Locals say that there are stolen cars, guns, and even bones in the pits.
Local teens were gossiping about how the shoes were tossed in a bonfire or sealed in Tupperware or a paint can tossed in the Mississippi river with weights to carry it to the bottom. People knew they didn't have security at night, but I think it's one of those small town, nothing ever happens here type thing. So, maybe that theory doesn't hold water, but what if the shoes were stolen by the owner of the shoes, Michael Shaw? People thought it could have been an insurance fraud deal. Michael had called the investigator and demanded that he check with him daily until the shoes were found and this seemed like an odd request. He said he had insured the shoes for $1M, but then said he didn't want the money, he wanted the shoes. It actually wasn't even Michael who payed the premium on the policy, he forced the museum to carry the insurance on the shoes. He also refused to let them put the shoes in a safe at night because he said he didn't want people touching them. About a year after the shoes were stolen, Michael reached a settlement with the insurance agency for $800k.
Here's why so many people believe that Michael himself stole the shoes. His behavior changed drastically. This was a man that traveled to all the Oz shows and festivals. His ruby slippers were called the traveling shoes because he would show up at festivals and open the box and show them off to people. He stopped going to festivals, his website shut down, and he ended his relationship with the museum and he used to go there all the time. It was like he got his money and disappeared. This could all seem really shady, but there could be another explanation. Michael Shaw had many fans because he attended so many festivals, museums, and charities. Many people turned their backs on him and accused him of stealing his own shoes. He was the only collector that traveled to these events to allow people to see the shoes, but people told him they were glad they were stolen. Michael Shaw believed that one of the fanatics that he met along the way actually stole the shoes. The thing is, Michael LOVED showing off the shoes and gaining fans. Why would he steal the shoes? He would have to hide them forever.
When the slippers were stolen, it made international news. David Letterman joked that “a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz had been stolen. The thief is described as being armed and fabulous.” The community was devastated though. In 2010, Grand Rapids police received a letter that said Michael Shaw produced a high-end pair of shoes to look like his real pair. The writer said they had enclosed sequins that were identical to the ones used to make a pair of replica ruby slippers for him. What if Michael Shaw never sent the real slippers to the museum after all? A sequin had been found at the museum after the shoes were stolen and the writer made a suggestion to the police. Why don't you take these sequins and match them to the the sequin from the crime scene? Grand Rapids didn't have a lab that was even capable of running this kind of test, but they placed these sequins with the other one in the safe. Michael Shaw said he does have a pair of replica shoes, but he would never display them in a museum as the real ones.
In 2015, on the 10 year anniversary of the theft, the Judy Garland Museum sent divers into the Tioga (T-eye-oga) Mine Pit to see if they could find the shoes, but nothing came of this. In 2016, Brian Mattson inherited the case or the curse as everyone called it. He was handed a cardboard box with papers, a VHS and some tapes. He organized and transcribed everything and he was hooked on this case. He was determined to find the slippers. Over the years, officers began to jokingly ask about the shoes when they did routine traffic stops. Hey, is there anything in the car you wouldn't want us to find? Maybe weapons, fruits from Canada, or even the ruby slippers? The interesting thing about this is they realized the locals didn't know anything. This is a small town where everyone knows everyone's business. If the theft was an inside job or someone in town was paid to do it, everyone would know about it.
This next part sounds like it has nothing to do with this story, but stay with me, it does. There was a burglary that was the largest cultural theft in Minnesota history. In 1978, a small family run gallery hosted a private exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings. Eight of the signed paintings were hung by each other and a painting by Pierre Renoir (Ren-wah-r) was on loan. The owners had taken security measures to install a theft proof lock and paid a guard to watch the gallery overnight. Someone punched through the lock and the guard was temporarily missing as the thieves took 7 Rockwell paintings and they got the Renoir as well. Three of the missing Rockwells were recovered in Brazil. In 2010, crime reporter Bruce Rubenstein received a call from a retired prosecutor in Minnesota and he had a deal. He knew that Bruce was fascinated with this case and he said, If Bruce could find out anything about the ruby slippers, he would put him in touch with someone who knew about the Rockwell crime.
Bruce did find something out about the slippers from a detective he knew in L.A. The detective said there was a big time Hollywood producer who made it known that he was after a pair of the ruby slippers and had been contacted by someone claiming to have them. The producer went to a garage and saw the slippers and believed they were authentic. He began trying to make a deal with the seller, but things got heated and the producer went to the police with the information. When they got there, the garage was completely empty. Bruce gave this information to the retired prosecutor and he held up his end of the deal by getting him in touch with a man that told him everything about the Rockwell burglary. We won't go into too much detail with this because I might honestly want to cover this story in the future if people seem interested. Four Minnesota thieves, 3 of whom had Mob ties, targeted the gallery. They were never after the Rockwells at first, they just needed the Renoir (Ren-wah-r). The painting was a fake and it was part of a scam run by mobsters who got freaked out when the person they sold it to put it in a gallery show. If people figured out it wasn't real, the art scam would be exposed. The Rockwell thieves were never arrested and it's believed that one or more of them was involved in the disappearance of the ruby slippers 27 years later. If there's a Mob connection, that could easily explain why no ones talking.
In July 2017, Brian Mattson, the one that inherited the ruby slippers case, received a call from a guy stating he knew about the slippers. Brian had received tons of tips, but this one felt different and he immediately hit the record button. The caller was from a Southern state and claimed to be innocent, but was a middle man that got brought into helping the slippers get back home. He said he called the Judy Garland Museum and they blew him off. He tried contacting the insurance company and they didn't help either. The caller was like, do you even care about getting these back? Is this case still open? Is there a reward? Mattson said it was still open, but the police had never offered a reward. An outside party had offered a reward and they could look into it. When the insurance company paid the settlement for the shoes, they became the owner of them. They agreed to pay the caller the remainder of the original policy which is $200k if the police could safely return the shoes.
The statute of limitations had expired on the theft at this point, but someone could still get charged with possession of stolen property. The police asked the middle man to provide proof that the slippers were ok. He emailed them stating that the people holding the shoes would send a photo and he would forward it. A week later, Mattson received the email and the photos were taken from a phone. To his surprise, whoever sent the photos, wasn't smart enough to remove the GPS coordinates. In September, Mattson received a call from a Minnesota lawyer stating the Middle Man retained his services because the holders of the shoes were unhappy that he was talking to the police. Mattson attempted to work with the lawyer to get the shoes back, but he was ghosted. Mattson had no choice and contacted the FBI to take charge on this. They contacted the callers that had been communicating with Mattson without telling them they were with the FBI. They arranged a meeting with the lawyer in Minneapolis who was going to bring the shoes. The lawyer had no idea that he was meeting with the FBI, but about 100 agents were involved in this and were all surrounding the meeting site and others were in Florida where the pictures of the shoes came from and they were ready to serve a search warrant to the Middle Man.
Mattson was in his car watching and saw the lawyer arrive early. He stops in a coffee shop, places an order and did something that shocked everyone. He places a bag with the slippers on a table and went to the bathroom. They were like, should we just go grab it right now? The FBI waited for the planned meeting time and they walked out with the shoes and there was no doubt that they were the real ones. It was a complete coincidence that the Expedition Unknown aired an episode about the hunt for the ruby slippers that very night. People were watching the show in Grand Rapids and all over the world and had absolutely no idea that the shoes had been recovered that morning. The FBI couldn't release the information just yet though. They called Dawn Wallace, an objects conservator with the Smithsonian. She has become the world's leading expert on the science and construction of the slippers and has spent over 200 hours studying and cleaning the pair that the museum has. Dawn got a call from the FBI saying they recovered the stolen shoes and wanted to know if she could verify the authenticity. Dawn Wallace was definitely the one to contact. In the 1920s, sequins were made of gelatin and by the 1940s sequins were made of plastic. The sequins used on the slippers were a transition between the two. They have a gelatin center, but there is a lead cellulose nitrate coating on the outside. Dawn had learned that the shoes got their burgundy hue from a dye called Rhodamine B and it would be nearly impossible to fake the sequins unless someone had the old chemicals for processing.
When the FBI arrived with the shoes, they were lead to a temperature and humidity controlled room. When the box was opened, Dawn immediately knew the shoes were legit and someone had clearly taken care of them very well. Dawn knows so many small details about the shoes that others wouldn't know to include. Several of the rhinestones on the bows of the shoes had to be replaced during production with glass ones and painted red. The threading was also consistent with an original pair. Here's the other funny thing. There had always been a rumor that the Smithsonian received a mismatched pair of slippers and this proved to be true. The Smithsonian shoes and the stolen shoes were actually two mismatched pairs. The swap must have happened during production of the movie and no one realized it. MGM had numbered all of the shoes inside the heels. One shoe was labeled #1 and the other was #6 on the Smithsonian shoes and the stolen pair had the matching numbers. The Academy Museum has a pair of shoes with the #7 and it's assumed that there were as many as 10 pairs at some point.
In September of 2018, the FBI gathered national media in MN for a very important announcement. Jill Sanborn, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division said, “We're here today to share with you the recovery of one of the most significant and cherished pieces of movie memorabilia in American history: Dorothy's ruby slippers from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.”
The shoes are covered in about 2,300 sequins
In 2016, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington DC raised more than $300k to restore the pair that they acquired
In 2012. Leonardo DiCaprio was named the lead benefactor in a group of movie lovers who bought one of the pairs. He acquired them from Kent Warner, the one who originally stole all the shoes from MGM. The shoes are one of the 5 authentic pairs known to still exist and are in the best condition. They are actually known as the Witch's Shoes. It's believed they are the ones on the feet of the Wicked Witch after the house falls on her and they are also believed to be the ones that Judy Garland wore in the close-ups when she clicks her heels. Leonardo, along with other donors, purchased the shoes so they could be displayed at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
One pair of shoes was won by a Tennessee schoolteacher in a competition in 1940 and were later purchased by a private collector.
Two California collectors bought a pair in 2000 for $666,000 and the shoes haven't been seen since.
Debbie Reynolds did end up with a pair of the slippers that were used for screen tests and were never worn by Judy Garland. They were sold for $627,300 at an auction in 2011.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy clicks her heels three times and says, there's no place like home, but unfortunately, the stolen shoes still haven't made it home yet and are in the possession of the FBI and are owned by the insurance company.
The Making of The Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz