Closing Details on the “Howard Hughes” Patek Philippe

I am so utterly disappointed with Christie’s behavior (not answering legitimate questions that were put to them) in the recent case of the “Howard Hughes” Patek Philippe that I wanted to lay out in greater detail some of the findings of my investigation which ultimately led to my view that the provenance of the watch was suspect.   I had initially planned to publish some of these details prior to the auction, but I did not do so on the belief that Christie’s would have answered my questions and made the need for such detailed discussion irrelevant.  Before I get into details, let me first say that my original article on this watch (June 3) reflected great excitement for the watch to be sold at auction.  It was only after details and questions were brought to my attention that I decided to change my posture on the watch.

In brief, the two areas I will drill-down on here are: 1) differing accounts of Donald Woolbright by a self-interested parties (Christie’s and Woolbright) vs. non-interested parties (2 authors of Howard Hughes biographies published in 2004), and 2) a couple of “oddities”  including a “note” from Hughes to Woolbright which accompanied the watch, and Woolbright’s obituary which makes no mention of the man’s 6+ years of employment for Hughes.

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Meet Donald R. Woolbright (Christie’s Account)

You can read the full account in the e-catalogue, page 266, but I shall summarize here.  According to Christie’s, the watch comes from Donald R. Woolbright, a man who was contracted by Hughes to “perform various surveillance assignments” in the mid-1960s.  The watch has purportedly been with Woolbright (now deceased — more on this later) and his family since it was given to him by Howard Hughes.  According to Christie’s, after one particularly “extensive” surveillance assignment, Hughes was so very pleased with Woolbright’s performance that he decided to give Woolbright the watch as a bonus.  And so the Patek Philippe Ref. 1463 (today, Christie’s Lot 385) was purportedly delivered to Donald R. Woolbright, along with a note from Hughes — “From my wrist to yours, very pleased with your results. Many thanks, Howard.”

Meet Donald R. Woolbright (Biographers’ Account)

I cite both Citizen Hughes, by Michael Drosnin, and Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness, by Donald L. Bartlett & James B. Steele, in which Donald Woolbright is mentioned many times.  The numerous references to Donald R. Woolbright in the aforementioned biographies are quite revealing as to this man and his background, and they seem to tell a different story than the Christie’s account.

Michael Drosnin writes on page 24 in Citizen Hughes:

A product of the north St. Louis slums, the car salesman [Donald Woolbright] had run up a hometown police record almost as long as Gordon’s list of screen credits.  He had twenty-six arrests, on charges ranging from burglary and fencing to assault and carrying a concealed weapon….Back in St. Louis, police called him a “nickel-and-dimer”, a street hustler with no real stature in the criminal community…

Barlett & Steele gave a similar introduction to Woolbright on page 524 of Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness:

The car salesman was Donald Ray Woolbright, who had moved to Los Angeles just three years earlier.  Back in St. Louis, where he grew up in the city’s slums, Woolbright had complied a record of two dozen arrests for a variety of alleged offenses, including burglary, assault, and counterfeiting.  When Woolbright moved to California in 1971, the intelligence unit of the St. Louis Police Department sent a message to the Los Angeles police advising them of his background and describing him as a “con-man, burglar and fence.”

Of note, in the combined 1,100+ pages of these two books there is absolutely no reference to Woolbright being a “surveillance” man for Hughes.   The reason that Woolbright is mentioned in these books is because of his mysterious involvement in “Hughesgate” and a notorious incident in Hughes’ life known as the “Romaine Street burglary”.

Woolbright’s involvement in the  (never solved) Romaine St. robbery eventually led to his indictment for receiving stolen property and attempting to extort a $1 million ransom for the papers that were stolen from Hughes’ Romain Street offices (see page 542 of Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness). He was convicted on the extortion charge, but later acquitted on what could be considered a technicality.

A man claiming (I say this only because I have not attempted to verify his identity) to be Donald Woolbright’s son commented on one of my earlier articles that it was Hughes himself who orchestrated the Romaine Street burglary.  I am not aware of evidence which supports this notion.   Also asserted by Woolbright’s son is that “What many do not know is that Mr. Hughes had extensive surveilence done on his own employees.”  but again I am not aware of evidence that supports this assertion.

Donald R. Woolbright’s Obituary

Donald R. Woolbright passed away on March 14, 2009 in Ulman, Missouri.  This is consistent with historical record from one of my cited sources — we know from page 533 of Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness — after the Romaine Street saga, “late in 1974, Donald Woolbright packed up his family, sold his house in Canoga Park, and moved back to Missouri, where he bought a small farm near Williamsville, a tiny hamlet in the Ozarks about seventeen miles northwest of Poplar Bluff.”

Here are the relevant lines of his obituary, the full text is posted at Alternative Funeral & Cremation Services of Saint Peters, MO:

Donald Ray Woolbright, age 68, died Thursday, May 14, 2009 in Ulman, Missouri. Mr. Woolbright was born September 4, 1940 in Trumann, Arkansas, the son of the late Clyde William and Jalah Idena Sandlin Woolbright. He was retired from the automotive business, was a veteran of the United States Army and a member of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church.

Curiously, there no mention of Woolbright’s 6+ years of employment for Howard Hughes (which Woolbright “always fondly remembered”, according to Christie’s).

The Note from Hughes to Woolbright

As I mentioned above, when the Patek Philippe Ref 1463 watch was purportedly delivered to Donald R. Woolbright it was accompanied by a note from Hughes which read:

From my wrist to yours, very pleased with your results. Many thanks, Howard.

The oddity here is that the oft-paranoid Hughes was notorious for NOT wearing a watch or carrying money, according to Paul B. Winn, a former personal secretary of Hughes.  Sure it is possible that Hughes was just being cordial, but given the other questions in play here, I have to wonder about this note.  Also, it is unknown whether or not this note even exists or if it is just part of the “story”.

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In summary, it was with these details in hand that I submitted the following questions to Christie’s via email (they refused my phone calls) and in my open letter:

  • Who told Christie’s the story of Donald Woolbright and this watch?
  • Did Christie’s independently corroborate this story (i.e. that the watch was given by Hughes to Woolbright)?
  • Is there any tangible/physical evidence to support the notion that this watch has any association with Howard Hughes (e.g. the handwritten note)? If so, has the authenticity of the tangible/physical items been corroborated?
  • Was/is Christie’s aware of the accounts of Woolbright as detailed in the two aforementioned books?

These questions were — and remain — unanswered.

Lastly, I will lastly add that Geoff Schumacher, author of Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue (Stephens Press, 2008) and proprietor of http://www.howardhughesblog.com also voiced his serious doubts as to the watch’s provenance.

At this point, I do not plan to pursue this matter further and barring any developments this will be my last post on the subject.  I felt it was important to lay out a few additional details for the readers of this blog.

  • Paul B. Winn

    You state above that Woolbright was acquitted of the charges of receiving stolen property and extortion. This is incorrect. At his initial trial he was acquitted of receiving stolen property, but convicted of extortion. On appeal that conviction was reversed because “the judge had ordered the jurors – who had been deadlocked after five days of deliberations an more than a dozen ballots – to reach a verdict.” A second trial was held, which resulted in a hung jury. The District Attorney decided not to conduct a third trial. I don’t believe these events are equivalent to an acquittal. (See pages 542-3 “Empire – The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele.)

  • Paul B. Winn

    I am even more convinced now that Hughes never had any connection to Woolbright or this watch. I have done some additional investigating. The watch purportedly was gifted to Woolbright for outstanding detective work and delivered in 1968. It is well documented that Hughes was at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas from Thanksgiving Day 1966 until Thanksgiving Day, 1970. It is also well documented that Robert Maheu was in charge of what was termed the “Nevada Operations” and had extensive access to Hughes and his business (although never conducted in face-to-face conferences; rather their contact was exclusively by telephone). Maheu was a well-known former FBI agent, and one must assume that if Woolbright did detective work for Hughes during this period he operated under Maheu’s direction, therefore the staff at Romaine Street might not have known about it. The purported delivery of the watch in 1968 was well into the period that Maheu was handling the acquisition of proerties in the Las Vegas area. Hughes employed Maheu because of his abilities as a detective and he later assumed other duties. Is it possible that Woolbright was contracted by Maheu to do detective work? Unfortunately, both Woolbright and Maheu are now dead. However, after the publication of the Drosnin book “Citizen Hughes” Maheu sued CBS, Drosnin, the publisher, Summa Corporation AND WOOLBRIGHT for conversion and use of Maheu’s letters and memos to Hughes without his consent. The case was dismissed and Maheu appealed. I have read the appellate court decision. If Woolbrigh had been employed or contracted through Maheu to do detective work, that fact would necessarily have been contained in the complaint. However, the only mention of Woolbright comes near the end of the appellate decision: “Woolbright is identified in the record only by the allegation in the complaint that he and Summa Corporation ‘wrongfully . . . took . . . and otherwise converted Plaintiff’s letters to their own use.”
    This case plugs the only hole in the possibility that Woolbright might have had connection with Hughes outside the knowledge of the Romaine Street staff. In my opinion, this makes iron-clad the claim that Woolbright had no connection to Howard Hughes until he attempted to extort money for the return of the stolen Romaine Street documents. Add to that the history of Woolbright in both the Drosnin book and “Empire” that he had a record of a couple of dozen arrests for things like burglary, assault ad counterfitting, and that “When Woolbright moved to California in 1971, the intelligence unit of the St. Louis Police Department sent a message to the Los Angeles police advising them of his background and describing him as a ‘con-man, burglar and fence’ (Empire page 524)” and a reasonable person would have reason to question his veracity.
    The additional light shed by this court case is, in my opinion, conclusive evidence that Woolbright did not have any contact with Howard Hughes.

  • http://www.thewatchpress.com Johnny

    What an amazing story this is developing into!

    Mr Woolbright’s idea to present the watch for sale at Christie’s, describing it as he must have, seems to have opened a new chapter in the Howard Hughes legend. Although considering the attention and growing interest in the saga through these pages and on other blogs, it also seems that doing so might not have been Mr Woolbright’s most enlightened moment. For he surely has some informed adversaries. There clearly are people here with access to considerable information resources monitoring every new twist and putting it under the microscope as it emerges – and more often than not seemingly chippng away with each blow at the original claims made by Mr Woolbright in his comments on this very platform. Up to and including possible covert government investigations by the CIA and Military Intellingence!

    However, based on the fact that you contacted Christie’s yourself Kyle, in my opinion doing them a considerable favour by providing them with some very useful information, then regardless of any possible misrepresention of the information they received regarding the watch’s provenance at the time the watch was put forward for auction, then any duty of care towards their trusting clientele surely fell at the doorstep of Christie’s.

    Because you cannot account for the actions of an individual, and scams and scammers are sadly two-a-penny, we have to rely on the security and screening policies of companies like Christie’s to make sure that the buyer can be confident when bidding on one of their lots, particularly when doing so online and without the benefit of being in the room to inspect the item first-hand, then any legitimate query they receive about the authenticity of potentially high-profile items, such as the Patek Philippe in question, should be properly vetted before the hammer is allowed to fall.

    As a watch writer, I am quite astonished that with Christie’s being in posession of such information, the sale was permitted to proceed – I would have thought that pending some further research or requesting some concrete verification of authenticity from the vendor, the lot might have been postponed to a later sale date.

    It’s not possible to believe that over the centuries since 1766 when Christie’s first sale was recorded, countless items with questionable histories have not passed through their rooms, but nowadays we have the internet, and Christie’s embrace this innovation keenly to expand hugely their selling catchment. In fact, if their sales catalogues were not mailed out to their subscribers, then it is most probable that this story would ever have come to light.

    If Christie’s select to use the internet as a sales platform, then they should also be seen to engage with correspondants like yourself Kyle who raise a fair question about an item scheduled for sale. A comment from them here would have at least acknowledged your concerns about the watch, and would have been visible for all to see.

    I would hope that in a situation such as this, if the buyer of an item which, within a certain timeframe, proves to be not as described, then Christie’s would have a resolution service on hand to restore the buyer’s money and withold payment to the seller (or file for repayment of funds paid out).

    However they manage such cases, Christie’s have enjoyed no positives from this one, and as an illustrious, respected and, most of all, trusted institution, should make some kind of announcement about the handling of the ‘Howard Hughes Patek Philippe, Lot 384′.

    Bad show Christie’s – the ball is now in your court.

  • NooneatAll

    I have actually talked to and interviewed the principles involved here, which is more than Kyle or Mr. Winn either did, although I do know that Mr. Winn could inteview Mr. Woolbright and establish his bona fides with ease. They have a mutual friend who could hook them up quite easily. With all the flack Mr. Win has given the Boxes authors about interviewing people involved, looks like he would have at least talked to Don Woolbright (the junior) face to face. He lives quite close to you Paul, or didn’t you bother to google him?

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