Pump And Dump: Did An Autoblog Writer Put Ethics On The Auction Block?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
pump and dump did an autoblog writer put ethics on the auction block

“Go to the Bonhams site and start your bidding for a piece of history from the lifetime of a larger than life car connoisseur and story teller.” Is this a paid advertisement for Bonhams? Is it a late-night television informercial? Nope, it’s an article in Autoblog, encouraging people to bid on a particular auction. Who wrote the article for Autoblog? Well, if you have to ask…

Last week, Autoblog ran a story on Bonhams’ auction of automobiles and memorabilia belonging to the late David E Davis. Multiple TTAC readers contacted me privately, asking, in effect, “What are you going to do about this?” I took a look at the article as originally published, nothing the writer’s claim that

Behind every item there’s a big and personal story and the pleasure of bidding on and owning any of these choice memorabilia would be made finer only by the original owner and raconteur being present to regale us with the details. Davis is acknowledged as being the one responsible for the original success of Car and Driver Magazine in the 1960s and of having saved it again in the 1970s and 80s. Prior to that, Davis had worked originally at Road & Track. Following the CandD years, Davis then founded Automobile Magazine which he turned into a success despite heavy industry skepticism about the need for another car enthusiast title…

The two key items on auction by our assessment – though it’s tough to choose, of course – are the all original ’51 Caddie with smooth running 331 cubic inch OHV V-8 and lot n.128 – a well preserved red felt race-day pennant from the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race

All of us in the autojourno biz are prone to writing some, ahem, advertorial prose from time to time, but this went beyond simple enthusiasm into outright salesmanship. Still, what’s the problem?

Plainly stated, the problem is this: the writer of this advertorial is Matt Davis, who happens to be DED Jr.’s son. Absent the information that DED’s estate was going to, say, the Humane Society of the United States, one might reasonably presume that proceeds from this sale would be funneled, in whole or in part, to him. TTAC’s readers were concerned that Matt Davis was performing a classic “pump and dump”: pretending to be a third party extolling the virtues of a particular product, the sale of which would benefit him. Nowhere in the original story was the link between David and Matt Davis made clear. Nor is “Davis” isn’t exactly a rare name.

It wasn’t that long ago that Autoblog publicly terminated contributor Jeff Glucker for writing an Autoblog article at the paid behest of Nissan. Was this another example of readers being spoon-fed advertising masquerading as editorial content? Time to find out.

I started by calling Bonhams, where I was shunted from voice mailbox to voice mailbox. I left multiple messages last Friday, asking for help. All I wanted to do was confirm whether or not Matt Davis was the owner of any items being auctioned (particularly the “two key items on auction by our assessment”) at the sale. Bonhams refused to talk to me about it, presumably to protect the privacy of the seller.

My next call was to John Neff, the Autoblog editor-in-chief. He didn’t return my call — but his boss, AOL Autos Editor-In-Chief David Kiley, did. Mr. Kiley was forthright about the situation, noting that he had personally inserted a disclaimer into the article after seeing it online. Following our initial conversation, Mr. Kiley rewrote the disclaimer to be more comprenhensive, and the revised disclaimer now appears on the article.

When asked about the genesis of the article — did Davis bring it to the editorial team? — Kiley asserted the reverse: Autoblog editors asked Matt to write it, since he was DED’s son. “We should have put the disclaimer on it when it was first published, but as soon as I saw it, I corrected that, and we are confident that Matt is not profiting from the auction.” At our request, Mr. Kiley contacted Mr. Davis, who is currently in Paris, to confirm.

It strains belief that a man would leave an estate like the one being auctioned and not provide for his son: speaking personally, my son is 31 months old and is already legally set to inherit a veritable cornucopia of stringed, hand-wound, and gasoline-powered junk. Still, at some point one has to make the decision to trust and believe people. If Matt Davis isn’t making a buck from this auction, and that is the position of AOL/Autoblog on this subject, he is certainly acting (in print) like a fellow who stands to benefit quite handsomely.

My last question to Mr. Kiley: Isn’t this pretty much the same thing Jeff Glucker did? Take cash from Autoblog in exchange for the opportunity to sell a product directly to the site’s readers? Not a chance, he responded:

It’s apples and hockey pucks… Matt is not directly profiting from this auction.

Mr. Kiley did not indicate that Autoblog plans to discipline or terminate Mr. Davis as a result of the article. As said article is currently published, with two days left to go before the auction, the connection is plainly drawn in an editorial comment. From AOL’s perspective, that will surely suffice… but we would like to invite Mr. Davis to contact us directly to discuss the matter with our readers. Surely some of our readers would be interested in hearing what Matt has to say about these items: it would just be easier to swallow if we didn’t think we were being sold.

Join the conversation
2 of 29 comments
  • Jared Z. Jared Z. on Jan 18, 2012

    My name is Jared Zaugg and I assist Bonhams with their PR on certain motorcar and motorcycle auctions. I would like to comment on what seems to be an effort to create unsubstantiated controversy with this article. First, Bonhams is very glad to be representing this incredible collection from an incredible man. There was never a "refusal" on the part of Bonhams to discuss this. Presumably the people the author spoke to on the telephone at Bonhams’ offices were simply trying to put him in contact with the right folks involved with this sale. (The Davis Collection is being sold this week in Scottsdale, AZ.) The author did contact me and left a message requesting information (Friday 1/13). The multiple times I tried to return the call after the 3-day weekend (1/17), there was never an answer nor an opportunity to leave a message. Furthermore, the specialist at Bonhams’ U.S. Motoring Department who consigned the collection, David Swig, was never contacted nor was the head of the U.S. Motoring Dept. As for the “ethics” question, this is what I do know: The collection was consigned by Davis’ widow who is NOT the mother of Davis’ son. Since Davis’ son was not hired by Bonhams nor is he the consignor of his father’s collection, I have no further information other than these facts. In business since 1793, Bonhams has earned a very good reputation over the centuries, one that the company is very proud of and eager to maintain. The specialists in its 50 departments, particularly the Motoring Department, are always willing to answer questions to the public and the press alike. The David E. Davis Jr. Collection of Automobilia is a very impressive collection of unique and historical items assembled over the lifetime of a very interesting and respected man. It is slated to be sold at the Bonhams Scottsdale Sale on Thursday, January 19th. http://www.bonhams.com/scottsdale

  • BklynPete BklynPete on Feb 13, 2012

    Jared Z. is right. Matt Davis' mother is the first Mrs. Davis. The second Mrs. Davis -- to whom DED Jr. was married 35 years -- is putting these items to auction. I don't know what, if any, economic circumstances were involved. My impression is that DED ended his life pretty well-fixed. Mrs. Davis is in her 70s may simply not want to maintain such a diverse, and undoubtedly expensive auto collection. She also might not want to have memories of her husband around, especially when there's profit to be made. I'm sure that's what he would have wanted, and it's practical. I don't know what the status of DED Jr.'s relationship with Matt was at the time of his death. I'm aware it was difficult when Matt was younger, but who didn't fight with their father? I was under the impression things had smoothed out over the years. The fact that Matt -- who is at least 50 years old -- injected himself into this and appears to be angling for some small profit is a bit sleazy. It's not completely unusual, though. Still, this is hardly a Brooke Astor type of bone-picking.

  • Inside Looking Out The next 4Runner will be BEV.
  • The Oracle This is a proper Italian red sauce turd.
  • Carson D This isn't a notice of a wait time for 4Runner fans. This is a deadline for the opportunity to buy one new before they're gone. Whatever comes next, there is no possible way that it will be as good at doing 4Runner things as what is available today.
  • Bkojote There's a lot "just right" with the current 4Runner, and having spent time in more contemporary equivalents for road trips, I completely understand why they sell a ton of these.Here's some topics that aren't super common among 4runner owners - excessive carbon buildup in the engine after 40,000 miles (Audi/VW), bent valves (Bronco) , failed oil coolers (Jeep), cracked engine blocks (Jeep), dead vehicles from OTA updates (Chevy Colorado), being stranded due to opening the door too many times (Defender), malfunctioning engine sensors (Defender, VW), dead batteries due to electrical system malfunctions (Jeep), unusable defoggers (Jeep), waiting for seat heaters to boot up (Subaru), randomly catching fire (Kia/Hyundai), crappy build quality (Ford, Tesla).The interior feels solid and rattle free, and everything feels substantial in the way a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Kia Telluride does not. 14 year run means accessories are plentiful and well sorted. The control inputs from the radio to heated seats to climate control work better than 99% of the cars you can buy new at this point and are dead simple and ergonomically satisfying. Even dynamically (I drove a model with the KDSS system to be fair) it is a surprisingly composed vehicle on mountain roads- it's far more civilized than a Bronco or Wrangler, and hell, it was far more pleasant than the past two peastant-grade Benz crapmobiles I've been in.So I get it- car journalist rags whine about how overly complicated and tech-heavy modern vehicles are while their substance is cost cut, but here's the literal definition of 'don't fix it if it aint broken.' . It's a trusty Ford Econoline in a world of craptastic Ram ProMasters.
  • Frank Sounds like they dont want to debut it at the same time as the new Land Cruiser, which is probably smart. The new 'runner is ready to go I am told, so there's a reason for this delay.