With the kids back to school, equipped with their compute disks, some collectors are drawn to writing supplies of another era: fine fountain pens. They're discovering that others share their inkling that prices for these jewel-like scrivener's tools are pointing upward.
"Writing with a fountain pen satisfies my artistic urge," explained Boris Rice of Houston, president of Pen Collectors of America, a club for vintage fountain pen enthusiasts. In comparison, he said, "Writing with a ball point pen is like writing with a nail."
Millions of luxurious and utilitarian fountain pens were made, mostly in America, during a golden age from 1900 to 1941. World War II rationing and the post-war pre-eminence of new ball points killed the market, except among a few die-hards. "I've always used a fountain pen, and I mix my own ink, a dark sepia black that dries slightly brown," said collector George Fischler, a microbiologist at Colgate-Palmolive Co. in Piscataway, N.J. "The only time I write is when I sign my name, and I want my signature to have character, personality and distinction."
The big names in fountain pens remain household words: Waterman, Parker, Sheaffer, Conklin and Mont Blanc. Most pens can be dated and identified by their maker's marks, materials and filling mechanisms, aided by old advertisements and trade catalogs reprinted in a spate of books, price guides and specialty magazines. The biggest, glossiest, and best-regarded recent books are by Mr. Fischler and Stuart Schneider: "Fountain Pens and Pencils, The Golden Age of Writing Implements" and "The Book of Fountain Pens and Pencils" (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., available for $75 each postpaid from Hudson Valley Graphics, P.O. Box 64, Teaneck, N.J. 07666).
Pen prices have escalated
Mr. Fischler and Mr. Schneider, an attorney in Englewood, N.J., got collectors to take their rarest pens out of the vault to be photographed. As a result, their books include several thousand color illustrations, enabling enthusiasts to trade pens over the phone, citing page and picture. Some European auctioneers now even catalog pen sales with Fischler-Schneider references.
Times have changed since dealer Cliff Lawrence of Dunedin, Fla., founded his business, the confusingly named Pen Fancier's Club, 15 years ago and began mailing a newsletter to 80 collectors who bought pens from him mostly for $5 to $35. Today he claims about 2,500 subscribers, and his price guides list an abundance of pens in the $100 to $1,000 range; there's still a small selection under $85.
Back in 1977 Mr. Lawrence valued at $250 a particularly fine and rare circa 1906 gold-nibbed Parker Lucky Curve "Snake" pen with green emerald eyes and a snake-shaped sterling silver overlay climbing its cap and barrel. (They're from the era when eyedroppers were required for filling the ink reservoir, but to "penmen" it's worth the mess.) Three years ago, shopping center developer Charles M. Yassky of New York began collecting by buying a Parker Snake for $12,000. In today's recession-softened market, Mr. Yassky advertises that he'll pay $10,000 and up for one. Last October he dropped a record $36,000 for a Waterman Snake at a National Pen Show auction; only four are known.
Vintage pen shows and swap meets are a growth industry. Three years ago there were five in the U.S.; now there are 11. Last month over 500 collectors attended one near Washington; twice as many are expected at another gathering Oct. 17-18 at the Headquarters Plaza Hotel in Morristown, N.J.
What's the point in writing such big checks for these trinkets? The majority of collectors are men, and to many it's a status symbol to have the biggest and best. Just before departing for a recent show in Germany, Mr. Yassky asserted that what he likes most about pen collecting is the hunt, but he quickly boasted that his silver filigree Waterman 448 "is the size of a stick of dynamite. It's mind-boggling, like a piece of fine jewelry." A mysterious Long Island, N.Y., woman, however, is rumored to have one of the largest and finest pen collections. "Mrs. Ky" is the "pen name" used in her ads.
Like the stock market
The buying, selling and trading of pens more closely resembles the stock market than the antiques market. It's hard to tell whether that's the cause or effect of so many corporate tycoons, bankers and brokers favoring fountain pens. Investment value is a primary attraction. Several dealers nevertheless noted that the pen market is prone to quick booms and busts, having been inflated recently by just a few voracious rich collectors and bands of wristwatch dealers who discovered fountain pens when their own market slowed.
Mr. Yassky has revealed once-secret pen prices by advertising aggressively with full-page illustrated displays in antiques trade magazines listing what he'll pay and his toll-free phone number, (800) 969-2345. As a result, he says he's earned the wrath of many pen dealers. He'll spend $300 and up for a Wahl Oversize Gold Seal lever-filler and $500 and up for a Waterman Patrician, both large, colorful plastic pens with gold nibs from the late 1920s and early 1930s. When new, Patricians sold for $10; turquoise-colored ones now are valued in the $1,500 range.
Nearly every serious pen collector also is a dealer, constantly buying and selling to finance the hobby, according to Mr. Yassky. It takes luck as well as a keen knowledge of the pen market to strike it rich. "A few months ago I traded a lot of pens and some cash, the equivalent of about $10,000, for a silver Parker Aztec with an Indian design," Boris Rice said. His trading partner paid $55 for it at a tag sale. Glen Bowen of Kingwood, Texas, sold his extensive pen collection to finance his lavishly illustrated Pen World magazine, de rigueur for collectors.
Serious collectors have become sticklers for quality, condition and cachet, so what they pass up can be good starting pens for a new collector or relative bargains for shoppers looking for nice gifts. At the Sha-Dor Baltimore Antiques Fair during Labor Day weekend, Jessie Ulin of Coleman & May of Washington was offering 25 vintage pens, including a Waterman 452. It had a minor "ding" on the edge of its silver clip cap and so was priced at $575, well below what one in mint condition would bring. Similarly, an attractive unmarked early-1920s silver overlay pen in good condition was marked $425; it would cost twice as much if it bore a major maker's name, according to Mrs. Ulin.
Other good values include petite "ladies' pens," which have the artistry of larger men's models but a smaller market. It's said that one particularly choice ladies' model was sold for a song because its owner couldn't eject the retractable nib and assumed it was an empty lipstick holder.
Wearevers and Esterbrooks with stainless steel points, traditional back-to-school purchases in the 1940s and '50s, remain inexpensive because they're plentiful and don't have the comfortable writing "feel" of gold-tipped models. "I sell them for $5, $10, maybe $20 if like new," said Alvin Kahn of the Penman Antiques at the Black Angus Antiques Market in Adamstown, Pa. He also stocks Parker 51s and good writing pre-War II fountain pens with gold nibs priced $50 to $125.