Mystery and intrigue surround Christie's sale of 'Howard Hughes' Patek Philippe

I always enjoy browsing through the watch blogs out there and I do try not to rehash what I've read elsewhere, keeping the content on The Watch Press fresh and original, but a wonderful story has been unfolding online over the last couple of weeks originating from the at first innocuous announcement by internationally revered auction house Christie's that on June 16th 2010, the hammer would fall on Lot no. 385, a 1949-vintage Patek Philippe Reference 1463 Chronograph in 18Kt gold.

The 'Howard Hughes' Patek Philippe Chronograph Reference 1463

What made Lot 385 somewhat unusual was the fact that according to the Christie's catalogue, the watch had at some time in the past been the property of eccentric and ultimately tragic American billionaire Howard Hughes. Now, it may be that if the watch had not had such provenance attached to it, then the sale might have passed by causing a stir only among Patek collectors and interested auction watchers, but in connecting the watch to the myth that is Howard Hughes, Christie's attracted attention from Hughes historians and biographers, as well as fellow watch writer Kyle Stults at luxury watch blog

You see Kyle himself is a bit of a Howard Hughes fan too, and when the opportunity arose for him to write a feature which legitimately brought together two of his interests, he put up a post concerning the upcoming sale in Christie's New York rooms, declaring his fascination of the man and the mysteries entwined around and throughout his private life. Little could Kyle have expected the life of it's own this story would take on in the days to follow.

It was claimed that the watch had been in the possession of a Mr Don Woolbright, a self-proclaimed private employee of Hughes, whose role he claimed was to conduct undercover private investigations within the sprawling Hughes empire at the behest of Howard Hughes himself. The watch, according to Mr Woolbright's account of events, was given to him as a gift in gratitude for his services allegedly with the words 'from my wrist to yours' and has been put up for sale by his son, Don Woolbright Jr.

Only hours after the feature appearing, questions began to appear surrounding the accuracy of Christie's description in their catalogue. A former personal assistant to Hughes, Mr Paul Winn noted on the blog that in all his time working closely with his employer, Hughes had never worn a watch (nor carried any money) and Winn suggested that in his opinion, the likelihood of this watch having ever belonged to Hughes was at best somewhat dubious, and even further stretched was the idea that had ever been bought by or worn by the man.

However, once the validity of the watch's history came under closer scrutiny, a few details quite quickly emerged, mostly eminating from historians, biographers and former Hughes confidantes who made the claim that Howard Hughes famously never wore a watch at all, and also about the character of Mr Woolbright Sr as well. One writer in particular, Geoff Schumacher, himself a published Howard Hughes biographer, was certainly not pulling any punches in regard to his opinion of Mr Woolbright Sr in his feature on his Howard Hughes Blog.

That seemed to be it, as the story appeared to tail off for a few days. But, having discovered Mr Winn's opinion on the watch, Mr Woolbright Jr (ultimately the beneficiary of the proceeds of the sale) responded to the charges on the blog by attempting to punch holes in Mr Winn's credibility, challenging him to back up his claims and calling into question the offer of testimony from Hughes closest and trusted employee - Kay Glenn, who was charged with the role of staff overseer within the Hughes organisation and whom had never heard of Mr Woolright Sr's position, although familiar with the name for a subsequent felony committed against the Hughes estate some years later. The following exchange was quite amazing, with Mr Winn standing firm and requesting some form of stand-up verification, but ultimately, the burden of proof fell into the hands of the vendor - Mr Woolbright Jr and no proof thus far has been forthcoming.

Indeed when it finally came down to putting reputations at stake, a challenge which was proposed to Mr Winn by Mr Woolright Jr, the challenger and potential beneficiary mysteriously went quiet - and has stayed that way at the time of writing this summary.

Even so, in the absence of anything other than rhetoric to defend the case of Mr Woolbright, surely the watch would be withdrawn from sale by Christie's, at least temporarily, until any questions of authenticity can be established one way or the other, after all Christie's are an internationally renowned, respected and most importantly trusted institution through whose hands pass some of the world's most famed and recognised objets d'art.

Well, following the discrepancies being debated between parties on his website, Kyle not unreasonably contacted Christie's by phone and email, helpfully informing them of the possible anomaly associated with their Lot 385 Patek Philippe Reference 1463 gold chronograph. So the watch was promptly removed from the 16 June sale.


Well then, they changed the wording of the lot to inform potential bidders that there were possible question marks over the historical claim?

Not a bit of it.

The sale went through as scheduled on June 16 and bidding activity was healthy - as one would reasonably expect when up for sale was a rare Patek Philippe chronograph, especially one sold as a valuable and authentic piece of Howard Hughes memorabilia and with a potentially much wider client catchment as collectors of both Patek Philippe and Howard Hughes.

With a Christie's estimate of between $150,000 and $200,000, the watch eventually sold yesterday to a private collector for $254,500.

As the histories of either Messr's Woolbright (Sr or Jr), Winn, Glenn or Schumacher can be more fairly debated among specialists in the history of Howard Hughes, so I cannot reasonably take a side in their discourse (other than to lean toward he who has put forward the more convincing argument), but for sure, if there is one party entangled in the whole story and who should have reacted much more responsively to a legitimate call for clarity when faced with information which questioned the provenance of the watch as provided by themselves, then it must be Christie's.

By underestimating the value of openness (and the punch of the internet) when confronted by someone with a bloody good question, haven't Christie's let slip their guard and revealed an underbelly through which anything might go? Uninhibited?

Also, in a bizzare twist to the story, while studying the Christie's image gallery for the watch upon the release of the Christie's catalogue, 'Contaminuti', founder of Italian language luxury watch review site Orologi di Classe blew us all away with his discovery that the Patek Philippe legend, engraved into the tang buckle of the watch carried a misspelling! Notice the double 'LL' as opposed to the correct 'PP' on the buckle! Not that this watch needs any more mystique, it's becoming like the Mary Celeste! How can the misspelling have gone unnoticed?

Whatever the truth about the actual watch, it seems unlikely that - considering the compulsively secretive nature of the eccentric Howard Hughes - it's history may ever be factually documented, and so from this point in time, this Patek Philippe reference number 1463 chronograph, will always have a spectre of doubt hanging over it.

Still worth the $254,500? Only the private collector to whom it now belongs will know the true answer to that. Now it has a little more history than perhaps it had before these last few weeks.