In the latest edition of FORBES magazine, widely-published watch journalist Jack Forster, in his multi-faceted article Time Bandits (pages 156-160 of the May 7, 2012 issue), resurrects the story of the now famous “Howard Hughes” Patek Philippe watch which sold at auction in June 2010 for $254,500. Unfortunately (though unintentionally), Perpetuelle was not credited for the brief mention that the story received in FORBES. Yes, while “famous” is perhaps a bit strong to describe the notoriety of this event, the Curious Case of the “Howard Hughes” Patek Philippe was a story that originated here at Perpetuelle.com, and for those of you who missed it the first time around, follow me now as I recount the saga. This is one interesting story!
It started in June 2010 with a Patek Philippe Ref. 1463 watch to be auctioned by Christie’s — the watch was purportedly of great provenance, a gift to a Mr. Donald Woolbright from the late billionaire, investor, aviator, & film producer-turned philanthropist Howard Hughes. What a watch to own, eh?! Christie’s was certainly not shy in playing up the Howard Hughes connection of the watch. Naturally, I featured the watch on Perpetuelle on June 3, 2010, expressing admiration for Hughes and excitement for the auction. Not so fast, though — an unsolicited and completely out-of-the-blue comment by one Paul B. Winn on my article Howard Hughes Patek Philippe Ref. 1463 Up At Auction turned my world upside down and launched a tantalizing story of mystery, stonewalling and deceit. It unfolded over the next two weeks on Perpetuelle.com.
You see, Paul B. Winn, as I soon learned, was a former personal secretary to Howard Hughes — one of the rare men in the notoriously secretive Hughes’ “inner circle” on a day-to-day basis. In his comment on Perpetuelle.com, Winn was highly skeptical that the watch (nay, any watch) was in fact gifted to Woolbright by Hughes. Upon receiving Winn’s comment (you can read his remarks here), I exchanged emails with, and then proceeded to speak at length with him. Based upon these conversations and my further investigation of Donald Woolbright (who I learned had recently passed away), I was increasingly convinced that Paul Winn, a man who I could see having no horse in this race, was right — the Patek Philippe Ref 1463 was NOT gifted by Howard Hughes to Donald Woolbright. Empowered by the facts of my investigation, I was determined to bring the truth into the light. I was confident that Christie’s would act honorably and pull the watch from the auction lineup. I was wrong — dead wrong.
My investigative research revealed that Donald Woolbright, among other things, was a street-hustler with 26 arrests on charges ranging from burglary to fencing and assault to carrying a concealed weapon. He had only a faint (and unseemly) connection to Howard Hughes. Indeed, Woolbright’s only documented connection to Howard Hughes was for his involvement in “Hughesgate” which resulted in Woolbright’s indictment for receiving stolen property and attempting to extort a $1 million ransom for papers that were stolen from Hughes’ Romain Street offices. Clearly a man whose credibility could be considered lacking. And certainly not the type of person upon whom Howard Hughes would bestow a Patek Philippe watch. At least that’s the only logical conclusion that I could arrive at.
With this information in hand, my next call was to Christie’s auction house. Upon my inquiry as to the provenance of the watch, my suspicion was even further heightened. It was clear that I caught Christie’s flat-footed. Once Christie’s learned I was questioning the provenance of the watch, they began to stonewall. First, the watch department passed me to the press department. Then, days later, a terse statement was issued (…the auction will go on!). Unwilling to back down given the litany of information in support of my case, I persisted. Still, Christie’s press representatives refused to return my repeated phone calls — even though they were fully aware that I had raised serious, legitimate doubts as to the provenance of their “Howard Hughes” watch. Far from asking for the world, I had only a few simple questions which would easily put the dubious story of the watch to rest. 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? Either willfully ignorant or completely clueless, it did not look good for Christie’s.
Undeterred, I decided to publish an Open Letter to the Christie’s Watch and Press Department, just one day before the watch was to be sold at auction. Clearly, my message was that Christie’s should pull the watch from the auction, pending further research given the Patek’s dubious and undocumented association. Alas I was not persuasive enough. Nor did the public support of Geoff Schumacher — Las Vegas writer, author of “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue” (Stephens Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Howard Hughes Blog — bear any credence with Christie’s.
And that is where the story ended. To this day, Christie’s has not provided me with ANY information or documentation which supports the purported provenance of the “Howard Hughes” Patek Philippe. Christie’s is, to me, the most disappointing actor in this entire saga. The power was theirs to stop the auction in the face of an overwhelming case that the watch’s provenance was not as it was purported to be. The onus was on them. Money and hubris are not easily given up, unfortunately.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you and I hope you’ve enjoyed the report. Though I had put this series of events well behind me, the FORBES mention brought it vividly roaring back to the present and I felt compelled to recount the story. My hope is that the purchaser of the “Howard Hughes” Patek Philipe Ref 1463 might one day find my writings here, and the two of us might engage in a delightful conversation on the topic. For those who want more, I suggest reading my series of blog posts in reverse-chronological order in order to experience the saga as it unfolded on Perpetuelle. As always I welcome your comments.
Kyle Stults, Perpetuelle Editor-In-Chief
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE HOWARD HUGHES PATEK PHILIPPE
by Kyle Stults, Perpetuelle.com
Addendum: Our “acknowledgement” from the author of the story in Forbes:
Just came to my attention that @perpetuelle wasn’t credited properly as a source in an article I did for ForbesLife . . .
— Jack Forster (@jackforster) April 28, 2012
@perpetuelle Kyle my sincerest apologies –your reportage on the Hughes watch provenance question was great stuff
— Jack Forster (@jackforster) April 28, 2012