By on January 17, 2012

“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.

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29 Comments on “Pump And Dump: Did An Autoblog Writer Put Ethics On The Auction Block?...”

  • avatar

    I never noticed the “Matt Davis” byline. I went to the link and looked at a couple of pages of photos of stacks of magazines and gave up.

    On what page were the Holland & Holland shot guns?

    I also would have been interested in a hounds tooth hunting jacket with leather elbow patches from the poser collection.

    • 0 avatar
      dvp cars

      ……that auction house has a clunky website, but if you go to their “last page” and work forward, there are some really interesting cars on offer. I never noticed the Davis connection either, but I remember how odd it sounded for the writer to gush over a so-so 50’s Caddy and a pennant, when there were far more fascinating items for sale. Autoblog routinely previews upcoming auctions, particularly RM, and I always assumed they may have been rewarded in some way for the practice. But in this case, the younger Davis should have been more forthcoming about his familial connection…….as for distribution of the proceeds?…..nunnamybizness.
      BTW, the Bonham’s people are also less than clear about which of the cars belonged to David E Davis and which are dealer owned. On the other hand, their “estimated values” seem fairly realistic, should be a helluvan auction, wish I could be there.

  • avatar

    “It strains belief that a man would leave an estate like the one being auctioned and not provide for his son”

    How, exactly, did you jump to this conclusion? While I admit that it is certainly possible that Matt Davis owns the items in question, it’s also entirely possible that he does not and was left many other things of value.

  • avatar

    “Matt is not directly profiting from this auction.” Talk about using specific language. Did a lawyer write this?

    I am sure he is not DIRECTLY profiting from this auction, but I sure as hell bet his mother or the estate is. Will he indirectly eventually profit from this? You know it as well as I.

  • avatar

    simple question will resolve this:

    do proceeds go to charity?

    or do they go to the son?

    if it’s the latter, we have an ethical issue. if it’s the former, i don’t see what the big deal is.

    edit: after reading Jack’s post above, i think my mind has been swayed.

  • avatar

    Just how do you write about the estate auction of your dearly departed dad without mentioning that he is your dearly departed dad?

    It might as well have been written by the unpaid intern who will next be reviewing the new, pink Hot Wheels for girls.

    • 0 avatar
      CHINO 52405

      Especially since he notes in the article:

      “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”

      I’m far from an expert on journalistic conflicts of interest, but wouldn’t following his own advice make his piece more interesting?

  • avatar

    It seems Autoblog’s desire to always play the straight man shot them in the foot.

    Matt could’ve written a “Hey, I’m Matt Davis. Davis as in David E. I remember some of this stuff…” post that would be relevant and personal and…more overt, rather than covertly conflict-of-interest-y.

    Instead, the prose reads like most other AB posts: a dry summary of the facts.

  • avatar

    Is it really that hard to believe that maybe, just maybe, the late Mr. Davis is not in fact leaving much of anything to his son?

    Unlikely, yes. But I know many people of means who leave little or nothing to their next of kin, especially when said kin have already left college.

    Perhaps the late Mr. Davis left a lot of debt behind, and the auction proceeds will go to cover that debt. If that were the case, mayhaps Mr. Davis the younger has no desire to publicly announce that a man who twice saved C&D couldn’t manage his own debts.

    I’m really just playing devils advocate here, but on the same token I think you guys are holding Autoblog to a much higher standard than it deserves. Go there for regurgitated press releases, nothing more.

    • 0 avatar

      Regardless of whether he is/was getting anything from his old man or not, it is a tacky way to do things.

      Drumming up interest should be Bonhams job. I’m surprised he even put his name on the byline. Could have called himself M.D. Avis and got away with it. I guess morals and scruples are only for the little people.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      Is there a Mrs. Davis? It is very common for people to leave everything to their spouses. My first guess is that Matt’s mother is cleaning out the attic. Matt might not personally profit, but he is not exactly disinterested.

  • avatar

    Autoblog has gotten exponentially worse and worse over time. Their reviews almost all read like shills, and the writing is absolutely awful. So is the editing. All they are good for is breaking major auto show news but even they seem to miss things that Carscoop and Jalopnik catch first, and half of their news is posted 3 to 5 days late. Here’s hoping that their profits plummet and HuffPost shuts them down for good. I will e-dance on their grave.

  • avatar

    Ah, in these situations I channel my inner actor and ask the ghosts of Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg,

    “What’s my motivation?”

    or in the old-fashioned way of asking it, that leads to solving pretty much every historical or archaeological mystery, -ever:

    “Cui bono?”

  • avatar
    Matthew Sullivan

    Does Autoblog’s John Neff have any relationship to Autoweek’s Natalie Neff?

    If so, seems like it would make the whole thing just a little more quid-pro-quo-ish.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Having occasionally read Ms. Neff, I can only assume that she is either related to:

      a) John Neff

      b) someone who has kidnapped a member of the Crain family and has promised to keep that person alive as long as Ms. Neff is allowed to inflict her observations on the readership

  • avatar

    Not that this excuses anything, but I noticed the post has only 7 comments. On a site where posts routinely attract dozens or sometimes hundreds of comments, it appears that the readership has ZERO interest in this auction.

    On second thought, the lack of interest IS a damning detail. If the story is of no interest to the readership, then Autoblog can’t even defend the post on “newsworthy” grounds.

  • avatar

    Autoblog is a blog, not journalism, so I don’t expect to find journalism there. I couldn’t care less if their writers have a personal angle, which is of course what most blogs are.

  • avatar
    Jared Z.

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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