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Shopping for old pens

Lineup of vintage Parker pens for sale at a recent pen show.

Most pen collectors start out buying brand-new pens, and some never depart from the formula. Many of us, however, begin to wonder at some point what must have happened to all those great fountain pens from years ago, and whether we could get some to play with. This leads us into what I think is the more exciting end of the hobby, collecting old pens.

"Old" seems rather a drab word, but the term "antique" generally doesn't apply (since few pens are more than 100 years old). So, collectors have adopted the term "vintage", meaning roughly "older than my washing machine but not antique." It's a reasonable enough term, although it does raise the vision of pretentious people standing around talking about Unassuming Little Clarets with Fruity Noses and Good Legs.

If buying a new pen is like getting a steak from the supermarket, buying vintage pens is more like hunting, butchering, and dressing your own game. You have to know where to find 'em, how much to expend in the hunt, and what to do after you land one. It's usually riskier and more haphazard than buying new, but that just adds to the excitement of The Find.

I'll admit to not being a particularly diligent pen hunter. Most of the pens I buy come from dealers and individuals I know, or from pen shows. However, since I don't do, this presumably makes me an ideal teacher, so I'll pass along some hints here.

Where to find them

You find vintage pens where they are. There are hard ways, and there are easier ones.

In the wild (the hard way)

Many collectors stalk estate sales and flea markets to find pens. Some specialize in "brokering" such pens, acquiring them and reselling them to dealers or collectors who will refurbish them to keep or sell. The typical garage-seller or flea-marketeer will not really have any particular understanding of the pen market, so they will often sell at attractive prices (although eBay and other internet phenomena are changing this, as every trailer-park tycoon begins to figure that his chewed-up rusting Ingersoll might be worth as much as that pristine Wahl Doric that he saw on the web last week). If you are in the habit of going to such shows, it may be helpful to have a calling card made up that gives your phone number or e-mail address, and indicates your interest in buying pens; folks may then remember you and inform you when they get in good finds.

Sometimes, a visit to an old jeweler or stationer will reveal treasure: new-old stock pens, in their original factory packaging (often with stickers attached), that have never been sold. Many collectors prize such pens especially, although I myself would be less interested because I wouldn't want to write with them. In any case, the supplanting of the small retailer by high-volume, inventory-savvy chain stores make such finds rare indeed.

You'll usually find at least a few pens at the typical antique mall or traveling show. It's often frustrating to deal with professional general antiques dealers, however, because their mentality is to look the pen up in some half-baked ten-year-old price guide and then stick tightly to that price, even though they may have the wrong model, and in poor condition to boot. Of course, this works both ways: you may find a dealer who quotes a "book" price well below the going value for a particular pen. I once acquired a first-year Parker 61 from a general antiques dealer who didn't know what he had and took my first offer.

Not to be discounted is the tactic of asking your elderly relatives, friends, and associates whether you can ransack their armoires in search of FPs. Unfortunately, most of my relatives were not in the fountain-pen stratum of society, although I once received a beautiful (but badly damaged) Waterman 100 Year from an aunt.

At a pen show or from a collector (easier)

Transactions between hobbyist-collectors probably account for most vintage-pen sales. These are folks who generally don't look to pen collecting for a living, although they like to make enough money to subsidize hotel bills, table fees, and other related expenses. And for what do they incur such expenses? Why, for attending pen shows, of course!

The busy trading floor at a recent Washington, D.C. Pen Show

A pen show is simply a gathering of collectors, dealers, retailers, distributors, and other folks who get together to do some pen-related business. These started out as simple swap meets among hobbyists, but are now nearly complete conventions, with their own auctions, sidebar meetings and seminars, and even hospitality suites. The typical show can fill up a metropolitan hotel ballroom with dozens of traders, hundreds of shoppers, and thousands of pens. There's a regular circuit of pen shows across the 48 states (Sam Fiorella keeps a list of them here at http://www.pendemonium.com/), and they are getting bigger and more numerous all the time. Pen shows are breaking out all over the rest of the world as well.

Pen shows typically run over a long weekend (Friday to Sunday). Collectors usually pay a bigger price to get in on Friday (so they can go to the auctions and get first dibs on what's available), but the general public can come in for a small entrance fee on Saturday and Sunday (you'll want to check on the exact schedule if you plan to attend a show).

If you can't make it to a show, you can still do business with a collector pretty easily these days, thanks to the internet. Many collectors offer pens for sale through their personal websites, and you can also join any of a number of mailing lists devoted to pen collecting, where pens are frequently offered for sale or trade.

From an online auction house (dead easy, but risky)

In addition to the aforementioned eBay, and other general-purpose online auctions like Yahoo, there are specialized online auctions devoted exclusively to pens (see my links page for info).

Buying pens from an online auction is generally pretty easy; all you have to do is place your bid and wait for the auction to be completed, and if you win, you get the pen. Most of the auction services allow you to place stop prices or "proxy bids," so you can just enter in the highest amount you want to pay and count on the auction service to increase your bid as required until it hits the cap (or else until you win). Unlike conventional auctions (which end only when the bidding slows to a stop), online auctions typically have a fixed end date; the high bidder when the clock runs out is the winner.

Sometimes, auctions can heat up in the last few moments, so if you really crave a particular pen, it can pay you to be online as the auction reaches its end to respond to last-minute outbids ('sniping'). I've had pens taken away from me in this fashion literally seconds before a sale closes when a heretofore unknown bidder steps in. This sort of thing is very ugly, because the sniper can either (1) force you to hit your highest bid price, or (2) lose you the pen altogether (which might be worse). Still, sniping isn't inherently unfair or unethical, it's just part of the game. Many people turn to specialized sniping (or anti-sniping) software or services, but this seems like too much effort to me; I've found, over time, that the best approach for me is simply to bid a proxy price that's as high as I'd ever want to spend, and not to get my heart set on winning. I just sit back and wait for the auction to end.

Prices seem to fluctuate quite a bit on the online auctions; an examination of past auction archives for frequently traded pens (like Sheaffer Balances or Parker 51s) can be very instructive (although these should hardly be construed as definitive price guides; see my page on evaluating pens).

If you frequent online auctions, you should stick a sign on your computer screen inscribed with the words Caveat Emptor ("Let the buyer beware"). While most auction sellers are at least passing honest, they aren't always fully knowledgeable about what they're selling, and gross misrepresentations in lot descriptions are distressingly common. Many folks like to throw around jargon that they've picked up, even if it doesn't apply, and still others display a singular lack of talent in estimating ages of pens. One particular seller I've tracked seems to insist that every pen he sells is in "excellent condition" (leading you to wonder what kind of wreck would rate a "good" on his scale). Another seller once offered a $5 Sheaffer student pen, probably bought off the peg at the local drug store, as "the last great pen made by Sheaffer before they went out of business" (this pen, however nice, is hardly "great," and Sheaffer is still very much in business, at least at this writing). You should therefore take most of what you read in such ads with a jigger or two of salt. If you need information, you should contact the seller before bidding, although he or she may not always be able to answer the question to your satisfaction.

Finally, there are certainly some bad eggs out there in the auction community. I've been cheated at least once by a grossly deceptive description, and I've also had a seller steal graphics from this website to illustrate his lot (thanks to a tipoff from one of my readers, I contacted the seller, who promptly cancelled the auction without answering me). Buying from an online auction can be fun and rewarding, but you have to accept that you will occasionally get stung. This will happen more often online than in person-to-person sales, since you generally can't look the seller in the eye and can't inspect the goods (except via a fuzzy, underexposed photograph that often looks as though it was taken from a block away).

From a specialist dealer (easiest)

For the lazy among us, the surest way to build a collection of good, functional, and trouble-free pens is to buy them from a specialist dealer in vintage pens. These are folks who make their living (or at least a big part of it) from selling ready-to-use vintage pens. Often, these folks will offer guarantees on their merchandise, will accept various forms of payment (including credit cards), and will have generous return policies. Of course, this doesn't come cheap, but it is safe and reliable. See my links page for information on some vintage pen dealers that I know.

Knowing what you're looking at

If you have aspirations toward being a capital-C Collector (as opposed to someone like me who just wants to own a bunch of cool pens), it will pay you to study up and learn all about your area of interest. The easiest place to start is with online resources (such as this website). Eventually, you will want to collect a few books on the topic; see my bibliography page for some suggestions. While many of the new books on FPs are little more than "coffee table" books, long on great photography and rather short on text, there are still a respectable number of nuts-and-bolts books full of history, chronology, trading price ranges, and other facts that the collector can use.

The best way to learn, however, is by getting together with other collectors, whether in a local club or in an online forum (such as a mailing list). Here, you can look at other folks' pens, ask questions (and maybe soon be able to answer a few), and just generally talk turkey on the topic of fountain pens. Attending pen shows and walking the aisles of the trading floor is another good way to immerse yourself in the topic.

Much of the history of fountain pens has been, shall we say, colored by myths, misconceptions, and marketing hype. The collector community is slowly reconstructing this history, and new data are coming along all the time. I'm embarrassed at some of the whoppers that crept into past versions of this website; I've corrected them where I could, but I'm sure that more remain to be debunked. Above all, then, don't accept everything you hear, even from experienced collectors, as absolute truth.

Inspecting the pen

It goes without saying that you'd want to inspect carefully any pen you're considering buying. But what do you look for, and how do you look for it?

First, it's a good idea to invest in a couple of simple tools to take along on a pen hunt:

Now that you have your tools, here's a checklist around which you can organize your inspection (this is only a general plan; there are too many different types of pens out there for me to provide a comprehensive list).

You will be lucky indeed if you find a pen that checks out against all these criteria; or, looked at another way, you should be prepared to pay a higher price for such a pen. To the extent that the pen falls down on any of these points, your offer can be made correspondingly smaller.

Gotchas

Pen collectors are as honest a group of people as you're likely to find; they don't like to cheat people, because they themselves don't like to be cheated. Still, there's a phenomenon of which you should be aware, in order that you don't fall into a trap.

In recent years, it's become fashionable to modify or customize certain very common types of pens. For example, one collector-dealer uses caps and barrels from 1930s Sheaffers to make ballpoint pens (by inserting cleverly-designed ballpoint guts). There's also a brisk trade in hoods and barrels for aerometric-fill Parker 51s, in all sorts of colors and materials that Parker never imagined back in 1941; these allow you to "hot rod" your plain-Jane 51. I've even seen a Parker Vacumatic "Combo", custom-made by grafting a small clutch pencil mechanism onto the Vac's blind cap. Since early ballpoints are no longer functional as they were made, some folks slip modern ballpoint refills into them (which sometimes takes a bit of work) to restore them to writing condition.

Purists might sniff at all this accessorizing, but since most of the pens involved are dirt-common and often might otherwise be junked, they probably don't represent particular losses to history. Indeed, this is hardly a new practice, since it was very common for pens made before 1925 or so to be customized with "aftermarket" overlays, clips, and the like (and we're not even talking custom-ground nibs, which are also occasionally found). This tradition continued in the following decades with (e.g., the gilded, jeweled, or hand-hammered caps found on some Parker 51s).

Even more recently, some craftsmen have taken to making replicas of classic pens that are startling in their verisimilitude. Of course, reasonably knowledgeable collectors can easily spot these, and many of them are plainly marked as replicas.

This is all just fine, and a lot of fun for everyone, as long as no one tries to convince you that any of these pens is somehow original. Here, again, it pays to know about what you're looking at.

Terms of the sale

Buying a pen from a private dealer is emphatically not the same sort of transaction as buying from a retailer. In general, most dealers will bend over backward to see that you are satisfied with your purchase, but you do need to understand some basic rules of the road to make the transactions go smoothly.

First of all, it's up to you to inspect a pen thoroughly before committing to buy it. While a professional dealer may feel an obligation (to customer goodwill) to take back a pen that the buyer has found unsatisfactory, a private trader is not required to do so. Often, a trader may sell you a pen that he hasn't inspected thoroughly himself, and it may have problems that aren't obvious until much later; you should take this risk into account when settling on the price of the pen. As a rule, then, you should assume "all sales final" unless you're told otherwise.

Also, you should assume that everything is sold "as-is", and that the pen you buy may not be ready to write with (e.g., it may require a sac or a piston cork refurbishment). If you want a pen you can write with right away, tell the dealer so he or she can steer you away from pens that don't meet the requirement. Don't assume that the seller offers any kind of guarantee on the pens unless he tells you he does.

If you do decide to return an older pen that you bought from a dealer, you should do so as soon as you can. The longer you wait, the greater the likelihood that the pen will deteriorate (e.g., hard rubber will tarnish), making the pen less valuable and less saleable for the dealer.

If you're at a pen show, you can ask a dealer to "hold" a pen for you as a favor while you take a lap around the room to think it over, but the dealer isn't obliged to do so. If you do "lay away" such pens, it is common courtesy to let the dealer know quickly one way or the other what you have decided, so that he has the chance to sell them to someone else.

When it comes to vintage pens (or any other such goods), there's no such thing as a fixed price. This seems obvious, but many people don't get it. Some dealers will mark their asking prices on the pen, others do not. You can certainly ask a dealer what he will accept for a pen, and you are free to make a counter-offer (which the dealer may either accept or chuckle at). Often you might get a break if you buy a couple of pens at the same table. Sometimes (and I don't endorse this, but I have done it), you can go around the tables near the end of a show and bargain a bit more aggressively, when the traders are more inclined to sell for at least a little cash rather than have to carry the thing home with them.

Cash is King at pen shows. Many dealers will take a check, but few will take credit cards unless they've made a business out of their hobby. All will gladly accept your hard currency. Rationing yourself a wad of currency for pen buying is also a good way to stick to a fixed budget at a busy and stimulating show.