Pens in the Wild: A Hunter’s Guide

(This page revised October 11, 2015)

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Buying a vintage pen at a pen show is easy. Even I can do it. But if everyone just bought and sold pens at pen shows, the same pens would make the rounds again and again like the famous Christmas fruitcake that nobody ever eats. Vintage pens aren’t being made anymore, but the supply at shows continues to grow, so it’s pretty obvious that somebody’s getting pens somewhere else. And that somebody might as well be you.

Finding pens in the wild can be challenging, but it’s also exciting — when you get in your car carrying a near-mint boxed “51” set you just bought for $15.00, you get a rush like an angler who just landed a ten-pound rainbow trout on a Royal Coachman. Let’s talk about where the good hunting grounds are.

Where the Wild Things Are

Black Thorne Antiques Antique shops are obvious hunting territory, but not all antique shops are likely to be fertile ground. Many single-owner shops (like the one shown here) tend to specialize; a dealer who is known for quality furniture, for example, may not want to bother with “smalls” (what antique dealers call little things like pens, watches, and jewelry). When you go into a shop, look for cases of small things such as jewelry, lighters, and other accessories. If there are no cases anywhere, don’t waste the proprietor’s time. Or yours. If you see cases, you can scan them, but they may be scattered all around the store, and it’s often more efficient to find the proprietor and ask if the shop has any fountain pens.

Antiques Warehouse First cousin to the antique shop is the multidealer shop (sometimes called an antiques mall). These venues can provide some very good hunting — but it can be tedious walking up and down aisle after aisle of booths. If there are special aisles for cases, there’s where you want to be. Again, it’s probably worth asking the person at the counter if he or she knows of any dealers who might have fountain pens. You can save a lot of valuable time that way, but don’t rely on finding pens in only the cases or booths that are pointed out to you. Glance into others, too; some dealers may just have one or two pens peeking out among other things. Prices can vary wildly between booths; in the 170-dealer mall shown here, I found an Esterbrook J for $12.00 in one booth. In another booth was another J, nestled in a Montblanc box and priced at $195.00.

That $15.00 “51” set I mentioned above came from an outdoor flea market. Fleas are a great place to find pens, but you’ll have to put on your hiking boots and just resign yourself to walking up and down. (You’ll do a lot of that at the huge Shipshewana Flea Market in Shipshewana, Indiana, shown below, or at Brimfield, in Massachusetts.) Some tables are pretty easy to dismiss — you’re not going to find a Red Ripple Waterman on a table covered with cheap Chinese hand tools — but you do need to be alert, because it’s not always obvious where the goodies are going to be. If there are boxes under a table, remember that humility is a virtue, and get down on your knees. Oh, and do go early. The earlier you get there and start your search, the less likely you are to be following along behind Sumgai.

The Shipshewana Flea market. Photo copyright www.backroads.org

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Photo © www.backroads.org

It’s not unheard of to find great fountain pens at ordinary yard sales. This kind of hunting can be even more pleasurable, of course, if you take along someone else who enjoys yard sales, too. The key to finding pens at yard sales is always to ask. Just because you don’t see any pens on those tables doesn’t mean that the homeowner doesn’t have any. Some people just don’t realize that there’s money to be made from those inky old wrecks that have lain in the desk drawer for who knows how long. Multifamily sales or multigenerational sales offer even better chances; one of the generations might be Grandma and Grandpa selling off all the stuff they don’t want to take with them to the retirement community.

Estate sales, usually conducted by professional auctioneers, are also a likely target. Get there early enough to look through everything. You can start by asking the auctioneer if there are any fountain pens, but sometimes the answer will be, “I don’t know.” When that happens, you’re on your own. Open desk drawers. Open bureau drawers. Paw through boxes of junk. Try to be blasé about it; if you uncover an Oversize Red Veined Gray Pearl Balance, pretend it’s just another thing in your way as you look for the good stuff. Crowing about a good find, even just paying too much attention to it, is a good way to attract the interest of other people, such as the antique dealers who haunt these kinds of sales.

Having mentioned estate sales, I should at least acknowledge the existence of auctions at an auctioneer’s place of business. These, while often hugely enjoyable, are not usually a likely place to come away with good fountain pens. (But every so often the unheard-of happens; the NOS dealer card of Sheaffer Finelines shown here came from the annual New Year’s Day in-gallery auction of a local auctioneer.)

Sheaffer Fineline dealer card

Occasionally you may run across a rummage sale; these are often organized by churches (your own, perhaps?). Stop and go in; you never know what you might find.

Tips and Techniques

You’re in an antique shop, and you’ve found the pens. Now what? Since pens are usually kept in locked cases, you need to track down the proprietor. Let this be an opportunity for further probing. At a shop along U.S. Highway 1 in Maine, I found a case containing several boxes of pens. I went and got someone to open the case, and while I was looking through the boxes I asked casually if that was all the pens there were. That offhanded question resulted in the appearance of several more boxes that had been stashed inside a closed wooden cabinet. I took home some very nice pens from that shop.

Be aware of where you are. In a professional antique shop or mall, you can probably use a credit card. At a flea market or a yard sale, think again. Carry cash. And carry it in small bills. There’s nothing quite so embarrassing as nickel-and-diming a flea-market dealer down to $1.50 for a mint-in-box Esterbrook desk pen and then fishing out a $20.00 bill to pay for the thing. The dealer won’t say anything about it, but dealers who do the flea-market gig all summer long have long memories, and the next time that dealer sees you, you’ll probably find bargaining a lot more difficult.

If you happen to be a professional dealer (of antiques, pens, crafts, whatever), you might qualify for a dealer discount in antique shops and malls. It doesn’t hurt to ask. If you qualify, you’ll probably be asked to fill out a short registration form. Have your Tax Identification Number (TIN) handy, if you have one; otherwise, you can use your Social Security number. I always check for discounts, and over the years I've gotten registered with malls all the way from Maine to Ohio.

Always be nice. If the person you’re buying from seems interested in chatting, it’s worth the time to go along — or you can even start the ball rolling yourself with a few well-chosen words. Other people, whether they be at a yard sale or stalking the aisles at a flea, have stories to tell. Since you’re interested in vintage fountain pens, it probably follows that you’re interested in the stories of the pens you’re buying. Who owned them? Maybe that Vac went to war with the old gent leaning on a pair of crutches as he dickers with you over the price. Perhaps this Lady Patricia went to work every day with your interlocutor’s grandmother, who just happened to be your town’s Rosie the Riveter. Pens are interesting, sure, but so are people. Being interested in the people you deal with can be fun, it can be educational, and it can sometimes gain you enough good will to get you a better price.

Are you staring at a pile of pens but only wanting about half of them? The others are just so much junk, you’re thinking. You may be able to get a better overall price by offering a price for the lot instead of picking through and offering one price for this one and another price for that one, and so forth. And if the ones you don’t want aren’t junk, you should be thinking about how you can sell them to finance your purchase of the ones you’ll be keeping.

Know what you’re buying. This is so obvious it needn’t be said. Or is it? All the rules that I spell out in Pen Shows III: How to Buy a Vintage Pen apply here as well. You’ll feel pretty foolish if you get home and find that your super bargain of the day is a Wearever Pacemaker, not the Dusty Red Parker Striped Duofold that it resembles strongly enough that in your haste to beat out Sumgai you got fooled.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Upping the Ante

Okay, you’re educated. You know where to find pens and how to buy them. But you can save yourself a lot of effort by making the pens come to you. “How,” you ask, “can I do that?”

Advertise. If you don’t already have business cards, have some printed, and leave them everywhere you go pen hunting, even with the yard-sale guy who didn’t have anything decent. Who knows what he might stumble across, and if he has your card, he might just call you. Advertise in the newspaper. A small “I buy old pens” classified can bring great rewards. So can a similar poster on the bulletin board at a retirement community. (But ask first!)

Get in the public eye. Give a talk about pens at your local library, or at the lodge of your fraternal order, or anywhere else that makes sense.

Set up a display of your pens at the library, in a retirement community, wherever you can find room and permission.

This is just a start. There are more places to find pens, and more ways to get them to seek you out. Just remember to take time to smell the flowers along the way. Pen collecting is a hobby, and hobbies are supposed to be fun.

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