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.
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”.
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:
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.