The value of fine fountain pens
The two men were on me before I could take a good look at the two fountain pens I had just bought on-site at an estate auction. Their eyes shone eagerly, happy perhaps that they’d found someone to answer some nagging questions.
Are they worth anything, one man with an accent that sounded Russian inquired. I had heard the two of them and another woman speaking among themselves earlier as they looked over the porch of the house set to be sold in the early afternoon.
Fountain pens sell well on eBay, I told the two, because there are lots of collectors out there. I told them about a sale a few months ago of fountain pens at the Swann Auction Galleries in New York. (Click on photo above to see the pens capped.)
Then one of them told me a story: They had recently settled on a house that was packed with stuff belonging to an artist. They had asked the family to clean out the house, but at settlement, the family had not. Instead, they told the men to do it. Inside, they found tons of old Playboy magazines (which the artist apparently collected).
They also found tons of fountain pens. Were they fountain pens or stylos that artists normally use, I asked. No, fountain pens, he insisted. There so many of them, he repeated, and what he said next sliced through me.
They threw out all of the fountain pens, without even looking at them. There were so many, he kept saying.
I think I gasped.
I can only assume that this was the artist’s collection of pens – both fountain and otherwise – rather than a hapless array of junk. Unfortunately, even the family didn’t know what it had and didn’t take the time to find out.
That’s not unusual, though: Someone has a collection they have cherished for years but don’t bother to determine what is to happen to it after they’re gone. Then the family tosses it.
The men suddenly realized that they had made a big mistake, and they had learned a good lesson for the next time. It’s something that I’ve told people often: Don’t assume that the stuff you have is not valuable.
They likely threw away hundreds of dollars. Checking eBay later, I found a stash of fountain pens retrieved under similar circumstances that sold for nearly $900. The seller said that he/she had found them in a rental-property clean-out.
Families throw away so much good stuff that my auction pal Rebecca and I offer a session called “Historical Treasures in Your Home” to show them how to determine what is worth saving. We help them identify and research their items on the web so they can decide whether to keep it, sell it or donate it.
On Fridays, I answer readers’ questions about the items that they own, and sometimes they’ll write to say that they’ve tried finding the item on the web and came up empty. What I’ve learned is that they don’t know how to do the research – what keywords to use, what resources to check. I put together a blog post on how to figure out the monetary worth of items – not appraisals but the market value – by checking eBay and some retail sites via Google.
The beauty of coming to auctions is the information you learn from the other people who attend them. Most of the auction-goers are dealers who are expert at what they sell and can tell you a little bit of something about everything.
The items that sparked the men’s inquiry at the estate auction were two fat oversized pens: a Sheaffer Lifetime fountain pen and an Inkograph stylographic pen, both from the early 20th century They were in good used condition, but the Inkograph was missing its clip.
They were the third group of pens I’d stumbled on in the past few months. A week ago at auction, I got a batch of fountain pens, including Sheaffer, Esterbrook, Parker and Waterman – all in a Padron Churchill Cigars box. These were not likely from a collection because they all had ink on their nibs and looked to have been used often.
The website vintagepens.com noted that collectors like to write with their pens or at least make sure they’re in good writing condition. Among the pens I had acquired earlier was a Parker 51, a 1941 pen that the site said was considered the best.
Another time I had picked up an Esterbrook desk set with two pens, a stand and a full bottle of Script ink.
When I need a pen, I reach for a ballpoint because they are so cheap and so ubiquitous. But those who love the flow of ink on paper prefer the fountain. Those pens experienced their golden age during the years before World War II, according to vintagepens.com, both in the technological advances and innovations. One of the notables was the Parker Duofold or “Big Red,” one of which was among the lots I acquired.
Stylos were the first commercially produced pens to have broad appeal, according to vintagepens.com. Called ink pencils, they were first manufactured in Great Britain and Canada in 1875, and then in the United States a year later. Inkograph was one of the major manufacturers. The stylos were knocked out of play when fountain pens with nibs appeared in the 1880s, although they still remained quite popular. Lewis E. Waterman made the first reliable and practical fountain pen in 1883, eliminating the most common complaint about them: They leaked ink.
Others on my list include the Montblancs 149, made before 1962; Dunn (one of which I got in a box lot), which only made pens for a few years in the 1920s; Mabie, Todd & Co., among the oldest, dating back to the 1840s; Moore Safety Pens, not for fastening your clothes but with a nib that retreated into the barrel, Lamy and Pelikan.
Fountain pens, kicked out of prime time by the ballpoint pen in the 1960s, are becoming popular again, according to BBC news magazine story in May.
Swann Auction Galleries apparently agrees. It has created a department for what it calls fine and vintage writing instruments, and held its first sale of collectible pens in September. Pens sold from $60 (without the buyer’s premium) up to $4,600 for a Montegrappa Luxor Blue Nile Limited Edition 750 and a 1905 Parker Lucky Curve #38 “Snake.” Other top-grossers were black safety pens with coral caps: Rouge et Noir #6 ($4,000), and Rouge et Noir #6 and Rouge et Noir Original #6M (at $3,200 each).