Mint Vintage Pens: Preserve ’Em or Ink ’Em Up?

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This article by David Isaacson is a joint project, published here and on David’s Vacumania,com site. (Read an opposing viewpoint.)

Consider, if you will, the essential debates of our age:

Such issues evoke — dare we say provoke — strong emotions in those who engage them.

Mint Parker Duofold

In the realm of vintage pens, some of the most passionate discussion stems from whether to ink superb examples of old pens, especially those with very exceptional color or existing in an uninked or price-stickered state, or to preserve them as they are. Those oriented toward the collecting end of the hobby favor the absolute preservation of pristine pens, whilst others, who often consider themselves primarily to be users of old pens, seem philosophically committed to writing with them.

Pens differ from many other collectibles in that “to use” does not utterly exclude “to preserve” or “to collect.” Vintage pendom is a hands-on hobby in which many — perhaps most — of our chosen collectible can be used regularly with no significant harm to condition, to value, or to collectability. The numismatist — collector of coins — can save or preserve that rare 1895 proof Morgan Dollar worth $20,000; but once he uses it, perhaps spending it for a cup of coffee, not only is the coin no longer is his, but it also has been grossly degraded in value due to contact with his hands.

Pens are different.

Most pens manufactured before 1970 that are found now in the hobby marketplace have already seen use. Many are in excellent condition, with minimal wear to nib, to trim, and to both barrel and cap material, but they are not pristine. Pens can be restored, with repair of filling mechanisms and with gentle polishing, without harm to their value as collectibles.

Whilst any use of any pen causes incremental wear and theoretical devaluation, in truth a used pen in excellent (or worse) condition can be written with for a lifetime with trivial — if any — measurable wear or devaluation.

But, whilst most vintage pens are found in used condition and can be used further without substantial harm, occasionally one is found in pristine condition, having never met ink and perhaps retaining its original price stickers. Certain colors of old celluloid, such as Green and Black/Pearl, usually are found horribly discolored. Even if not pristine, pens found with superb color also are uncommon.

parker Streamline Duofolcs, showing near-perfect color and the usual discoloration

Collectors new to the vintage pen arena might look at any given pristine vintage pen — one that is unused, perhaps has original stickers, or has unusually good original color — and simply assume this is how most vintage pens appear. This is, after all, what they routinely find when they examine modern pens, so why should the old pens be any different?

But, the experienced collector has a different view. Upon examining that unused, stickered, and lovely 1920s Parker Duofold, marked by a hazy patina of color on the never-polished gold nib and gold fill trim, he will experience a frisson of awe as his adrenaline levels escalate. “Here be something special”, he thinks, feels, and… knows! This one is one in a thousand. It is something to be cherished and protected, a piece of history, an objet d’art.

Mint Parker Duofolds

However, some hobbyists — those rascally “Users” livin’ on the wrong side of the hobby tracks — argue that pens were intended for use and opine that the dipping and inking of a pristine vintage pen simply helps that dissatisfied writing tool achieve its first, best destiny (apologies to Mr. Spock). Some even might note that it is cruel not to help the pen reach this goal.

But… pens do not have souls. They do not… crave. There is no potential lost to the pen when it is not used, as there might be potential lost when a talented and motivated child is not given nurture to that talent. Rather, the value in a pen is in what it provides to its owner, and in the collectibles arena, the rarely seen pristine item has value and import which transcend the typical utilitarian considerations of “initial manufacturer’s intent”.

Vintage pens in pristine condition have value and rarity, as both objets d’art and collectibles, which are permanently reduced by use as writing tools. Similarly, virtually all pristine pens have readily available brethren which have already met ink, and which can be used without such harm.

Diamond Medal pen made by Parker
Inkograph stylographic pen
Sheaffer's Tuckaway

One should consider the relative cost to the hobby in pursing paths of either preservation or of use. Every pristine pen used depletes an extremely limited supply. Obviously, the pristine pen loses financial value once it has been used, but putting aside the price of the pen, harm is done to the collectibles hobby of Pendom when a perfect pen is used.

What cost — if any — is incurred by not using a pristine pen? Any nib style found on a mint pen can be found on an already-inked brother. Perhaps some individuals lose the charm — such as it is — of being the first person to “deflower” a pristine vintage item. Clearly, the cost/benefit to the heritage of pendom favors preservation over use of the rarely seen mint vintage pen.

But what to do for the collector who just has to write with every pen he owns? The answer seems simple. Given than many collectors will pay a nice bonus to obtain a pristine pen, one would expect that any dedicated user-of-all-pens will have an eager market waiting to which he can trade his perfect pen in exchange for nice working non-mint pens plus some cash. In some cases, that cash can be quite a lot; Richard recently saw a pristine Big Red Duofold that sold on eBay — to a knowledgeable collector — for $2500. Used, that same pen probably falls somewhere in the $300-$500 range. Note, though, that ebay prices can reach supra-market prices and do not always mark the mean price for such items.

Some who would ink up mint pens invoke a different perspective in this exchange. They note that they have a right to do what they want with their property, and ask, “Who do those who argue for preservation of pristine pens think they are?”

This, we can consider the “chutzpah” argument. And, while this perspective contains truth enough, we must note that truth, per se, does not necessarily convey gravitas. Indeed, within the bounds of what is legal, folks indeed have the right to do what they want with their own property. We do not argue otherwise. If someone derives pleasure from buying a mint pen in order to blow it up with a firecracker, that is his “right.” But, this essay advocates an unusual notion — that we obsess about rights a bit less and focus more on obligations. Pristine vintage collectibles that come into our possession fall under our obligation for protection and preservation.

Spread of mint pens

Anyone who wishes a pen to use can find a non-pristine example. The rarely seen perfect examples should be preserved so they can be appreciated by later generations of collectors.

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