Collecting vintage pens is a wonderfully satisfying and engaging hobby, the only downside as far as I can see is that it is just too engaging, you will find there is a ‘vintage pen time dilation effect’. This effect has been clearly documented by my wife who claims that I spend more time looking at, admiring, cleaning and restoring pens than I do performing essential but mundane household tasks. She is clearly outside the event horizon for the PTDE (pen time dilation effect) and therefore has a different and irrelevant frame of reference. I will try here to give an idea of some of the practicalities of pen collecting and, hopefully, encourage some of you to make a start on a collection.
How Much Does it Cost?
Not a daft question. I could, of course, say ‘as much as you want’ but that would be no help at all. Lets do some rough estimates: you can buy some interesting and collectable pens for in the region of £20 to £50, they may not be very rare and they may not be in the best condition but you may get lucky and they could be both. If we say a ‘collection’ probably consists of around twenty pens or more then you are thinking of spending in the region of £400 to £700 or so. Spread this out over a few weeks and it gives you a great hobby for not that much outlay. The thing is, you won’t just buy a pen, put it in a folder, and buy another one. You are more likely to receive the pen, test it, take it to pieces, clean it, polish it, put it back together smooth the nib, retest it, study it, read about it, fondle it, log it on a spreadsheet and then place it in your collection to be admired and shown off at your leisure. Add on the time you will spend regaling all visitors to the house with all the details about your pen collection and the week just flies by until your next pen arrives. Here are two pens, one from each end of the price spectrum:
Do I limit my collection to certain makes, types, or ages of pen or just collect anything?
When I first became interested I read a great deal on this question. Most of the experts, and experts they are, in the true sense of the word, advise to narrow a collection down to a certain make or even model which is affordable, fairly easy to get hold of, and offers a chance of completing a collection. For instance, Parker Pens made a model called the Parker 45, it is a good practical vintage pen, first made in 1960 and produced in dozens of variations for 48 years, they are fairly easily available, in the right price range and a full or almost full collection is possible. Or you could specialise in pens from the war years, or pens with marbled patterns etc. I thought long and hard about this advice then totally ignored it and collected whatever took my fancy, although I must admit I hardly ever pass up on a Parker 45 in a version absent from my collection. ( I have just counted and I have 32 Parker 45s at the moment, many of them duplicates.)
I have since taken notice of the initial advice and have concentrated on collecting pens that are more, well, collectable.
Where do I get the pens?
Flea Markets and Car boot sales etc:
Older books will suggest flea markets, car boot sales, and antique shops as good sources of vintage pens at reasonable prices. After spending many desperately miserable hours trudging round car boot sales I have bought a grand total of 1 pen. I don’t know why the boot sales aren’t awash with old pens, you would think there’d be millions of them. But there aren’t.
I also spent a day or two doing the antique shop treks in Newark and Lincoln with no joy. One antique shop owner said there was no point in stocking old pens any more, he said they were too ‘nickable’ to have on the shelves and were the perfect item to sell on the internet. He was right. There are several pen dealers with websites and I have to say that every single one I have had dealings with is honest, fair, and trustworthy. Many offer guarantees with their pens, a good delivery and after sales service an loads of free advice. I think they are so good because they are pen enthusiasts themselves. I personally would have no worries at all about buying a pen from any of the established pen dealers.
The other option is, of course, Ebay. Many of the dealers just mentioned also use Ebay in addition to their own websites and the same applies on both platforms, you can generally bid with confidence. On average you may find pens cheaper on Ebay than on pen websites but cost isn’t everything. Ebay is tremendously volatile, it is very difficult to predict from one day to the next what price a particular pen will sell for.
At the end of the day it’s not just about the ‘face value’ of the pen. If two or more bidders want a particular item at a particular time it will make good money, if not it probably won’t. Sunday evenings is the busiest time by far for Ebay pens, there are more pens but more bidders so whether it is a good time to sell or a good time to buy, or both, is not an easy question to answer. I would always favour a seller offering returns, I don’t see the point in not doing so, if the item is not as described Ebay will probably insist on a return anyway.
For a seller who relies heavily on Ebay a good feedback record is essential, they would never jeopardise a feedback score for the sake of refunding the odd item. I could go on forever about the dynamics of Ebay but I’ll spare you that for now, just give it a go, search for ‘vintage pens’, select ‘time ending soonest’ and your location eg. U.K. only, place a bid, I prefer to bid late, and stick to it. Watch the postage charges, a pen without a box will go as a large letter, Royal Mail, First Class, signed for at £2.60.
Pen shows are, by far, my personal favourite source of vintage pens. I am pleased to say, as I write this in mid May 2021, that the Covid vaccine has had the desired effect and there is a good chance that the pen shows will resume this year. The last one was the London show very shortly before the first lockdown.
The shows are an excellent opportunity to really indulge a passion for pen collecting, and are extremely enjoyable events. A word of warning here, unless you have endless cash resources it is a very good idea to set a strict limit on the amount you are prepared to spend before you set foot in the venue. The range of pens is huge and varied, there is always something else to tempt you even if you have already bought the pens you were actually looking for.
One of the best things about the shows, apart from the pens themselves, are the people that attend, either as customers or stallholders. By and large ‘pen people’ are very sociable, knowledgeable, and honest. Great store is set by reputation and a dishonest or deceitful trader would not last, or at least prosper for very long. At the last London show I had examined and decided to buy a lovely Onoto pen but the trader said ‘I assume you noticed the hairline crack in the cap’, It had somehow got past me and I was pleased with, but not surprised by his honesty.
If you haven’t already experienced a pen show, if you’ve got this far in this article you certainly should make the effort to do so. In addition to the pens on display you will probably see Eric Wilson performing magic as he repairs pens, perhaps buy a signed book from Stephen Hull, and enjoy chatting with the stallholders.