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What's my pen worth?

This is probably the number one question I get asked by people who write in to me. Close behind is "What can you tell me about this pen?" which I sometimes think is a veiled way of asking pretty much the same question.

I regret to say that I am not knowledgeable enough, and not interested enough in prices, to be an appraiser. I don't collect pens to get rich (heaven knows there are plenty of more reliable ways to do that, and in any case the hobby seems to be having the reverse effect on me), I collect them because I like to use them, and because I am interested in their history and design. In any case, I really couldn't evaluate a pen that I couldn't see, and even the best photographs cannot reveal everything about a pen that a critical collector or appraiser would want to see.

So, for those who just want to get to the bottom line, let me suggest a visit to eBay or Penbid (or some similar venue) to look for the prices that comparable pens have sold for in past auctions. These are hardly authoritative guides, but they're as good as anything out there, particularly if one of these venues is where you intend to sell. We'll have a brief intermission while you folks file out of the auditorium.

Now, for the rest of you who are still with me, perhaps you might indulge my waxing philosophical at this point. Maybe it's all those "antique roadshow" programs on TV, or all those online auction sites, but it seems like the moment people pick up some old and possibly collectible artifact, they start to hear the distant sound of cash register bells. Also, I suppose that for people outside a hobby, monetary worth is the only comprehensible yardstick by which to understand the value of an object. After all, if you can't appreciate the painstaking craftsmanship, the historical importance, or the unique appeal of, say, a 1905 Parker Snake overlay, you can at least relate to the fact that it often sells above $10,000.

So, what's your pen worth? The short answer to this question is as follows: the pen is worth something between the least you'll accept for it and the most someone is willing to pay for it. The long answer is that prices depend upon (1) venue, (2) rarity or interest, and (3) condition.

Venue

The only reason that an old pen (or a piece of fine china or an antique watch, etc.) would have any "value" is because someone (the "collector") might, for some reason of his or her own, be interested in owning it. The less interested an individual is, the lower the value will be to them. Old tchotchkes like fountain pens aren't commodity items like houses or used cars where there are enough brokers (realtors or dealers) and enough customers to establish consistent, accepted price guidelines.

As a result, then, prices are highly situational; you have to put the right pen in front of the right person at the right time. The pen that sold for $750 at some pen show auction last month might not even fetch five bucks at this weekend's neighborhood flea market (because there might not be anyone there interested in it).

On the trading floor at pen shows, pens often sell for less than they might otherwise, particularly if you can find a dealer who's tired or cash-strapped (or who appreciates your decolletáge, perhaps). Pens may sell for a bit more on online sites or in storefronts, where the dealers feel they need to get a good return for the space that the items are taking up on their (real or virtual) shelves. And, of course, pens sold at auction (real or online) will tend to set their own price.

The Internet is having an interesting effect on equalizing world prices for pens; while a vintage Montblanc 20 might have sold for quite a bit of money here in the U.S. several years ago (due to scarcity), it's now possible to find them online from European dealers for much lower prices (even when you factor in shipping, insurance, duties, etc.). The same is true in the reverse direction; online pen sales allow people all over the world to shop for U.S.-made vintage pens without having to fly to the States to pick them up personally.

Rarity or interest

The laws of supply and demand dictate that the less available something is compared to how many people want it, the higher its price will be. Also, some people may want it much more intensely than others, so they'll be willing to pay more for it.

The original Waterman Patrician, the company's flagship pen of the 1930s, is a good illustration of the effect of rarity on value. The Patrician was certainly a pretty pen, and very well made and nicely detailed, but it wasn't inherently more so than, say, a Eversharp Doric. Yet, because of Waterman's slipping market share, the pen didn't sell very well. Hence, there are fewer of them around today, and they fetch correspondingly higher prices.

Also, some pens may be worth a lot more to a specialist collector than other very similar pens. For example, pastel Esterbrook J-models are hard to find, and many Estie collectors are on the hunt for them. So, even though they may look identical to the swirly green J next to them on the baize, they'll often cost a lot more.

While we're talking low-priced pens (Esterbrooks), we should note that just because a particular pen sold for less money when it was new does not mean that it will also sell for less today. Frequently, the lower-priced pens in a maker's range will become very collectible and will fetch very high prices; for an example, consider the entry-level Parker Vacumatics, which were made from plastics that were unusual, but less labor-intensive (and less expensive) than the traditional laminated styles; these "downmarket" pens are now often quite a bit scarcer than their senior siblings and so often sell for more.

Condition

Condition is very important to the price that an astute collector will pay an old pen, but condition often consists in things that the casual observer might not necessarily see or know about. Surpisingly, perhaps, the pen doesn't have to be in ready-to-write condition to fetch top dollar, since most pens are fairly easily refurbished as long as all the parts are there. In fact, many collectors won't re-sac certain pens with good light-colored celluloid, since the new sac can interact with the plastic and cause discoloration ("amberizing").

On the other hand, cracks and scratches, non-factory engravings, worn, brassed, or loose-fitting trim parts, damaged points, and non-original parts (from eariler repairs) can all significantly detract from the value of a pen. The differences between a "good" pen and a "mint" pen can often be pretty subtle, even to many collectors. The taxonomists among us have labored long and hard to establish objective criteria and ratings for the condition of pens, but these efforts have fallen largely on infertile soil.

The upshot of all this is that if you have an old pen to sell, and you don't know much about it, don't assume that you'll be able to get the highest price you see on eBay (or elsewhere).

You will find some more comments on the specifics of condition in my page on buying older pens.

Appraisals

You can get a notion of the value of most everyday pens by following some of the tips I've given above (e.g., checking online auction results). On the other hand, if you've just inherited or found a large collection of pens, or some pieces that you feel may be particularly valuable, it might be worthwhile to get a professional appraisal -- either to satisfy your own curiosity, lay the groundwork for a sale, or to arrange for insurance. You need to contact an expert in this field, such as Bert Heiserman at http://www.penhaven.com/, or you may be able to get help via the Pen Collectors of America (http://www.pencollectors.com/). You might also find appraisers if you attend a pen show near you. Please, don't expect these folks to be able to appraise your pens via e-mail or from photographs; they need to see the pens in person (whether you take them in with you or send them through the mail).