The Mystery of the Missing Pair
Dear #KeepThemRuby friends,
Have we got a story for you.
Knowing all things ruby, you remember, Judy Garland had several pairs of slippers made for her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. A few of those still exist.
One pair you know quite well: It's the one we’ve been conserving thanks to your support of #KeepThemRuby.
Another was stolen in 2005 from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minn., Garland’s hometown.
The thief left behind a trail of broken glass and a single red sequin as the only clues. After that, the heist was an unsolved mystery for years.
Until now. Thanks, in part, to you.
FBI Special Agents recently brought a recovered pair of slippers to the National Museum of American History for an expert opinion. Might this pair be a masterful replica or one of the pairs worn in the iconic 1939 movie?
On an August day, the agents unboxed this pair of sequin-covered shoes, setting them in front of Dawn Wallace, the museum’s objects conservator, and Richard Barden, our chief conservator. While our Smithsonian staff doesn’t authenticate objects, these experts are always eager to share their knowledge when asked.
Wallace's first thought upon seeing the slippers? “Wow, I think these are the real thing.”
The Clue’s in the Bead
But she and Barden had to be sure. For two days, they examined every inch of the sparkling, yet clearly worn pair to assist the FBI and learn as much as possible about the shoes. Wallace is the expert, attuned to every nuance of Ruby Slippers after 200 hours conserving the museum’s pair in preparation for its return to display next month.
Barden has spent decades with the museum’s collections, including these Hollywood favorites, which will return to their display case on October 19, 2018.
In a “sequin by sequin sequence,” Wallace likes to joke, she cleaned the museum’s shoes, realigning many sequins to expose their silver sides, making them more reflective. She stabilized the shoes as well so that they can be on display for years to come. Supported by more than 6,000 Kickstarter backers, Wallace’s conservation work was done meticulously.
With trained eyes, the two investigated the pair from the FBI, noting many consistencies with the museum’s pair. One detail particularly stood out—a clear glass bead on the bow of the left shoe.
“The glass bead painted red was a eureka moment,” Wallace says. “That’s a piece of information that hasn’t been published anywhere and, as far as I know, isn’t widely known. It’s a unique element of these shoes and spotting that bead was a defining moment.”
The museum’s pair also has clear glass beads painted red. Yes, that's right: The beads match!
Through analysis and interviews with Hollywood costumers, Wallace learned the beads were replaced and painted during filming of the movie. When she saw the telltale beads on the bow of the recovered pair, she knew her initial hunch was correct—these were no fakes.
The shoes that make up the Smithsonian's pair aren’t identical. The left is marked 5C, the right 5BC. The heel caps, bows, width and overall shape aren’t the same. But, the recovered left shoe seems to be the reciprocal to our right shoe, creating two seemingly matching pairs!
The felt on the bottom of each pair is another shared characteristic and indicates they both were used for the dance scenes in the movie.
The mix-up of shoes may have happened during preparation for the 1970 auction of items in MGM’s costume closets. That’s when the museum’s pair was purchased—parting ways from other pairs produced for the film—and later donated to the museum anonymously in 1979.
Silver Makes the Sparkle
In addition to physically studying the recovered pair, Wallace also worked with scientists from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute to analyze materials and compare results between the two pairs. They found that the sequins had layers of different materials, including cellulose nitrate and a silver backing designed to reflect light and create a sparkle. (Modern sequins have aluminum instead of silver.)
“Because of our conservation work on the Ruby Slippers, we created a library of information about the shoes,” Wallace said. “And we were able to apply that to the pair the FBI brought here and gain more information.”
For Barden, the “aha!” moment came while examining the level of deterioration of the recovered pair’s sequins. The physical and light damage is consistent with the museum’s pair. To replicate this type of aging, one would have to have specialized knowledge.
We are thrilled to share our knowledge, play a role in the recovery of lost history and continue learning about The Wizard of Oz history.
What will the FBI agents do next in their investigation of the recovered pair? We don’t know, but we will follow the story in the news. They did tell us the publicity from the #KeepThemRuby campaign helped in their investigation to find the missing pair!
We hope you're as surprised and delighted by this unexpected turn of events as we are—and proud that you helped make it possible! Twists and turns around every corner—just as in The Wizard of Oz.
The National Museum of American History is making final preparations to return our pair of the Ruby Slippers to display on October 19, 2018. Stay tuned for even more stories about how we'll #KeepThemRuby!