It had to happen. A bit of divine levity and human frailty intruding on a somber moment.
Right there on the pens senators used to sign the oath of impeachment was a mistake, two letters transposed back at the plant in Janesville, Wis. Instead of "United States Senator," the Parker Vector roller ballpoint pens read "Untied States Senator." Was this a joke, an honest mistake, a plea?
If only the senators were untied, set loose from the constitutional process moving inexorably forward. If only we didn't have to hear the full accounting one more time. If only.
No matter. Michelle Syznal, a spokeswoman for Gillette, which owns Parker, says the company shipped 200 replacements Monday. Those pens have the correct spelling, but they do not have history. Chances are they won't be worth more than the $7.69 they go for at the Rite-Aid.
Not so for those with the typo.
Jim Rouse, co-owner of Bertram's Inkwell in downtown Baltimore, says he might bid $500 -- a decidedly low bid -- for one of the "Untied States Senator" pens. With proof of provenance, the pens could bring more at auction.
"A thousand, two thousand, ten thousand. I don't know. Whatever the market would bear," he says, noting one major problem: "They're very easily forged."
An enterprising soul could buy a handful at the Rite-Aid, take them to a printer and get them stamped with the mistake. Voila! It might fool the unsuspecting buyer, but probably won't get past one of the world's 245,000 pen collectors. Those folks need proof of authenticity before opening their wallets.
Most legislative pens don't make it to the collectors' market. They're just too common. Washington is full of pens. Renee Miscione, a spokeswoman in the General Services Administration's office supplies and paper-products commodity center in New York City, says the government spent $14.3 million on pens during the 1998 fiscal year. There were ballpoints, retractables, felt pens, 38.4 million in all.
Those standard-issue pens, costing about 37 cents a piece, are used in all federal offices in the continental United States and in military stations abroad. The government buys them through the National Industries for the Blind. Pens account for about 6 percent of the $230 million in purchases the federal government makes each year through the National Industries.
Those pens are for everyday use. The Parker Vectors are for special occasions. Further up the prestige ladder is the Parker Insignia Laque, which the president uses during signing ceremonies.
"Parker pens have been there forever," says Syznal, the Gillette spokeswoman, who was a bit peeved about the sudden spate of bad press for one of the company's subsidiaries.
Turns out there's more to Parker, founded in 1889, than a couple hundred Vectors with transposed letters. The officers who signed the surrender ending the Spanish-American War used Parkers. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower used two Parkers when the German army surrendered. Gen. Mark Clark used one to sign the armistice to end the Korean War.
"If you can prove that [a certain type of] pen was used to sign this treaty or this document it can have tremendous value," says Rouse.
One such pen is the Parker Orange Duo-fold Gen. Douglas MacArthur used to sign the articles of surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Parker made 1,945 reproductions of the Orange Duo-fold in 1995. The reproductions alone could bring $850.
"So, what do you think the original would be worth if the Smithsonian would kick it loose?" says Rouse. An average pen collector might bid $5,000 to $10,000; a military collector could send the bids into the $10,000 to $30,000 range. A MacArthur-ophile could send it higher. An item strikes a chord in the buying public and suddenly there's no limit.
In 1992, Mont Blanc produced 4,810 Lorenzo DeMedici limited-edition pens that sold for $1,600 apiece. The pens, the first in a series to commemorate arts and culture, now bring $5,000 among collectors. A diamond-encrusted Mont Blanc Royale can bring in $125,000. There's a special-edition Cartier valued at $150,000.
Sometimes a pen is more than just a pen. That must have occurred to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped make pen giveaways a necessary part of any Washington signing ceremony. A pen can become a piece of memorabilia, a sentimental keepsake, part of Washington's universe of tchotchkes. President John F. Kennedy gave out PT-109 pins. Some presidents gave out cuff links. Johnson gave out pens.
"Lyndon Johnson took everything to excess. He would always have stacks of pens," says Don Ritchie, an associate Senate historian. "He would hand them out in great quantity. He would hand them out to everyone."
Since Johnson, pens have become a standard bit of historical bric-a-brac. President Clinton signs his documents with black Parkers, sometimes using a different pen for each part of his name. This allows everyone intimately involved with the legislation to have a piece of history to take home. Each of the pens bears the presidential seal and the president's full name, William Jefferson Clinton.
What happens to these pens is anyone's guess. Legislators often keep them until retirement, then include them in collections donated to universities or libraries. Former Congressman Claude Pepper (D-Florida) covered his office walls with mementos from his legislative career. "There was not an inch of wall space that you could see," says Ritchie. "Some of them were framed pens."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Maryland) keeps a framed copy of the 1993 National Service Bill and the pen she used to sign it on her wall. The bill pays participants 17 and older nearly $5,000 for community service.
A spokeswoman for the senator says the "Untied States Senator" pen has not been seen for several days. The senator has more pressing matters on her agenda.
If and when the pen is found, there might be a place for it on the open market. And the price?
"It's hard to place values on this stuff," says Rouse.
Just look at what happened Tuesday at Madison Square Garden: $3 million for Mark McGwire's 70th home run baseball.
Pub Date: 1/16/99