Old fountain pens are drawing big fees from avid collectors


September 20, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

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.

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