Auction of the damned

The sad and grotesque spectacle of a $200 million dot-com reduced to overpriced lots of Aeron chairs and Foosball tables.


Janelle Brown
July 28, 2001 1:18AM (UTC)

It's hard to decide whether the Quokka auction on Thursday was a wake, a party, a mass hallucination or a convention of vultures picking clean the carcass of a dead dot-com. Probably it was a mixture of all of the above. As for myself, I simply wanted a cheap Aeron chair.

The asset auction industry has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the Internet: Every defunct dot-com has leftover assets that must be disposed of in the most expedient way possible, to pay off those peeved creditors. Auctioneers swoop in, assess the spoils left behind, display them online and then sell them to the highest bidder in public auctions. These days in San Francisco, auctions are as common as unemployed HTML coders: On any given weekday, you can bid on used Toshiba laptops, overpriced ergonomic workstations, Foosball tables and, of course, the ubiquitous $700 Herman Miller Aeron chair -- symbol of all dot-com excess -- going for a fraction of its original price if you just know which auctions to attend.

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The Quokka auction, however, promised the greatest bounty of them all. Quokka.com -- the broadband sports portal that brought us grainy 2-inch videos of such delightful events such as the Whitbread yacht races and the 2000 Olympics -- managed to burn through nearly $200 million, via an IPO and gullible venture capitalists, before it finally went bankrupt in April. Much of that $200 million, apparently, went toward stuff: Aeron chairs for nearly 300 employees. A $12,000 42-inch plasma flat-screen TV for reception. MiniDV cameras. Servers galore. Herman Miller graphite conference tables. DAT players. Twenty-inch TVs sprouting like daisies. Cavalcades of computers.

On Thursday, all of it was up for grabs -- a total of 1,700 items put on the auction block.

News of the Quokka auction began circulating at least a week prior to the actual event. I caught mentions of it on two mailing lists, in spam from friends and in a notice in the newspaper. A viewing session for the loot had taken place on Wednesday, and assorted friends had already filed through to gawk at the discarded decadence and report back about the pirate booty to be had. Still, I wasn't quite prepared for the madhouse that greeted me when I arrived at 11 a.m. Thursday at a ballroom of the Marriott Hotel. Judging by the bidding number I was handed -- 1175 -- I was not the first person to the party. Nor was I the last: By the time the auction began, at least 1,800 people were crammed into the room, standing three deep along the walls and spilling out the back doors.

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Besides your typical auction attendees, like the middle-aged liquidators who hover like hawks at these events, there were entrepreneurs looking to outfit their start-ups on the cheap, pink-haired hipsters hoping to find an inexpensive digital camera or Aeron chair, geeks eyeing the server equipment and a goodly array of veteran Net types just there for the spectacle. Odd characters materialized -- such as the 20-something in a basketball jersey and assorted gold chains, missing two front teeth, who loudly informed the people in line with him that he was gonna get himself a Palm Pilot and a camera and a TV ("60 inches, dude!") and the shabby old man with a gray beard down to his knees who sat silently behind me like Rip van Winkle. There was the occasional Quokka employee observing the carnage, and what seemed to be a large number of formerly employed dot-commers who didn't have anything else to do with their day. After all, this was free entertainment.

The auctioneer -- a genial ponytailed man -- stared dubiously at the crowd. "For how many of you is this your first auction?" At least 75 percent of the hands went up. He laughed, ominously. "This should be fun. Bid carefully, pay accordingly." And then, suddenly, his speech shifted into high gear and accelerated off toward the horizon, as the first item, a Palm Pilot III, went up for bid: "DoIheartendolla, ten, ten, twentygivemetwenty, thirty, thirtymywayJoe, fortyfortyyourway, fiftydoiseefifty ..." Within seconds, the Palm Pilot had sold for $100. The room tittered nervously, not sure what had hit it.

A Spalding scope swiftly sold for $125, and then we were at a pair of hunting binoculars. The auctioneer gazed amusedly at the photograph of the binoculars projected on a screen behind him, and snorted. "I walk around the place and I think, 'What did they do with this stuff?'" he mused out loud. The room cracked up; the binoculars went for $130.

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Mini-disc recorders ($170), color TVs ($325), a projector ($1,200), a box of cellphones ($250) and a number of triangular conference pods ($325) zipped by as the auctioneer joked his way through the list. "You have to have some fun; otherwise it's a pretty sad job, you know," he observed.

And it was sad. Quokka's Midas dreams may have been, in retrospect, rather obscene -- the sheer amount of money that it wasted on hunting binoculars and color TVs is shocking -- but as we collectively picked the bones clean, it felt as if the room was mourning the passing of an era. Quokka was no different from any other Web site: an initially interesting idea that was propped up by Silicon Valley's money men, blown out of proportion by ambition and then jeered at when its bubble inevitably burst. The frenzied glee over the cheap digital cameras at the auction was nauseating when you thought about the jobs lost, the money vanished into thin air, the hopes of hundreds dissipated.

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"It's too bad Quokka folded," sighed the German Web designer who sat next to me. "It was a good Web site."

But by 2 p.m., the enthusiasm and wistfulness were wearing off. We were only at item No. 317 (a Cisco 3600 router, sold for $2,750), with 1,430 lots left to go. The crowd was thinning as the auction launched into a series of not particularly sexy servers, switches, routers, CPUs and hubs and it became apparent that, at this rate, the auction wouldn't finish until 3 in the morning. Those who, like me, had come to obtain Aeron chairs were swiftly realizing that those items wouldn't come up for auction until 5 p.m. People napped, read, chatted on cellphones. The only moment of humanity all afternoon was when two young men fiercely competed to bid a modest IBM IntelliStation server up to $5,300 -- more than twice its cost when new -- and the room became silently electric. "What do we not know?" queried the baffled auctioneer, as the rumor sped through the room that the two bidders were former Quokka employees trying to acquire something stored on the machine. (I speculated: Documentation of boardroom shenanigans? A personal Web site secretly run off a company server? Someone's collection of pedophilia-related sites?)

Not only had the auction slipped into ennui, but it had become apparent that items weren't going for bargain-basement prices, either. The crowd of dot-commers and auction neophytes, a little unclear on the concept -- and overly eager with their wallets -- insisted on bidding items up to unreasonable prices. Outdated computers sold for $1,200, a "printing whiteboard" earned $800 and, in what was possibly the most jaw-dropping moment of stupidity of the day, a small green plastic doll from the movie "Space Jam" went for $75. When the Aeron chairs finally came up for bid late in the day, an enthusiastic woman started the bidding at $300 as the room devolved into hisses and groans. "At the auction I was at last week, you could get those for $50!" moaned the man sitting next to me, as the chairs went for $500 apiece.

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Apparently old habits die hard. Even at the funeral of a start-up that killed itself with spending, in an economy where money is as scarce as spotted owls, the dot-com industry still doesn't know how to shell out its money wisely. Irrational exuberance is alive and kicking; so, it seems, is denial.

So I left for home Aeron chair-less, and plan to put the money I saved toward my (equally irrational) electric bill instead. There will be other auctions; after all, 178 dot-coms went under in San Francisco between January and June alone, according to Webmergers.com. In the meantime, my generic $60 OfficeMax chair will serve me just fine.


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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