Quietly, like the whisper of nib traversing paper, fountain pens are returning to most-wanted lists. Today’s highly coveted examples are objets d’art, befitting a collector’s category that includes bespoke shoes and cameras that use film. And as with many luxury appurtenances, new is great but vintage is better.
Just as the latest Rolex speaks volumes but a 1930s Bubbleback turns heads, so, too, does a current Parker Duofold versus one from the 1930s, or granddad’s Montblanc Meisterstück compared to its present incarnation. But like the vintage-car scene, the pen crowd has what it calls “practical classics”, and has developed its own divisions between usable pens and those for show. Very elderly writing implements often leak, or their materials may prove fragile. Accordingly, collectors in possession of pre-1930s pens – such as Parkers, Onotos, Conway-Stewarts and De La Rues (an exquisite 1901 De La Rue Pelican in sterling silver is currently available for £2,195 from the Battersea Pen Home) – generally prefer to display rather than write with them.
Older examples tend towards the compact, from the tiny 1931 Parker Vest Pocket Duofold, at a mere 8.9cm (one is available for $295 from Fountain Pen Hospital), to regular pens of 13cm or 15cm in length. However, more recent desk-bound pens, such as Namiki Emperors (an artist-signed example of which, complete with 18ct gold nib and pocket clip, sold at Bonhams in June 2012 for $19,680) run to 20cm. It is something to consider when buying because, while the size can be impressive, the portable usefulness is compromised by a massive cylinder bulging from one’s inner pocket. Similarly, Montblanc’s Marquise de Pompadour of 2001 (now valued on the secondary market at about £2,000) is 16.5cm long and made of Meissen porcelain; its fragility, size and value conspire against its removal from one’s desk.
Indeed, many post-1990 limited-edition collectables are ornate sculptural forms that have more show than go. Maki-e pens are finished with some of the most delicate artistry Japan has ever produced. A typical price for a second-hand, standard-sized Namiki is £2,000-£5,000, depending on the intricacy of the design (though an example of the sublime Sakura Rose pen created by Namiki for Dunhill in 2005 sold for $48,000 at Bonhams a mere four years after it was made). Beyond the risk to the finish – which may incorporate gold dust, gold leaf, urushi lacquer and other precious materials – the thought of losing such a pen sends chills down collectors’ spines.
Among the most enjoyable of genuinely usable day-to-day vintage pens with the flair of antiques are models such as Parker’s modernist 51. The Battersea Pen Home offers beautifully refurbished examples for £150-£200, though the rarest pieces can command several thousands; a 9ct gold Presidential pen and pencil set recently sold for £1,560, but some 14ct examples from the 1940s go for between £2,500 and £3,000, says co-proprietor Simon Gray. An appealing aspect of the 51 for collectors, aside from the joy of using it, is finding models from the year of their birth. Its longevity makes this a viable pursuit for those who were born between 1941 and 1972.
Pen-only auctions are a rarity, but Germany’s Martini is an example of a specialist online auction house, while Bonhams’ US arm now holds pen auctions several times per year. Sales often exhibit regional biases, with many limited editions having geographical inspiration, such as the anniversary of the state of Israel or the forming of Italy into a cohesive nation. In December 2012, Bonhams offered Montblanc’s George Washington pen from the America’s Signatures for Freedom series of 2007 (number 24 of a limited edition of only 50), which, clearly of heightened appeal to US collectors, sold for $25,000.
Most cultured cities support a pen specialist or two. Vintage offerings can be found in Burlington Arcade’s Penfriend, whose current stock includes a Waverley Cameron with 14ct rose gold overlay from 1910/1912 for £4,250, a Parker 51 from 1954 in 9ct gold for £2,200, and an early 1930s Waterman’s Patrician in jade resin for £3,225. New York’s Fountain Pen Hospital is a magnet for aficionados, who’ll find a 1951 Montblanc 206 in coral red for $695 and a 1930s Parker streamlined pen in rare Mandarin yellow for $1,395 (the more common orange is $335). And this writer has had more than one old pen salvaged by EE Ercolessi in Milan, which currently has a Parker 51 in gold for €500, as well as a gold Parker 55 for €800.
“Since the price of gold went crazy, it’s been more difficult to find pens with a gold nib,” says New York attorney and collector Peter A Frankel. “New nibs are mostly made from stainless steel but many older pens have gold ones because that used to be the norm.” Quirks of nib, colour, interior mechanics (such as lever or piston-filled pens) and overlay are what appeal to Frankel, rather than narrowing his focus to a particular brand – though he has several Viscontis and Duponts. It’s the design that makes him “fall in love” and he often rewards himself with a vintage present after a successful day in court. But his purchases are rarely just for show: “I’ll write with a fountain pen during depositions, using it for a couple of months or a year before it’s time for something new,” he says. “The jury notices when you use one in court.”
After 25 years as a fountain pen devotee, I too have focused my tastes – primarily on the Italian makers (one notable exception is a cherished Parker 51 from the 1960s). Acquiring pens with a theme that speaks to me, though, means that Montblanc’s John Lennon Pen of 2010 (second-hand examples of which can be found for around £600) enjoys pride of place in my collection. Alongside it stand an Omas Marconi pen from 1995 (an example sold at Bonhams in 2010 for $976) and four of the now-rare Bugatti models made by Montegrappa in the early 1990s, with secondary market values in the low hundreds.
Collectable fountain pens have been made with the same attention to detail as fine jewellery; their creation may have featured hand-painted enamelling, metalwork representing dozens of hours of sculpting, or the centuries-old techniques of Japan’s maki-e artists. What these pens will never do is be mistaken for mere writing implements.