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(This page revised September 9, 2015)
Pen Shows I: Your First Pen Show offers you the basics you need to know if your wallet is going to survive its first pen show. In this second article, I’ll go into more detail about doing your homework before a show. If you thought homework was something you had left behind in school, think again. You can do a lot better for your collection if you know, before you go into the show, what you want and what you don’t want. It also helps to be able to tell the difference between a good pen and a not-so-good one.Making Your Wish List
Many pen hobbyists “accumulate” instead of collecting. They see a pretty pen and, like a magpie, snap it up without considering how it fits in with their other pens, if it even fits at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an accumulator; some people find that approach tremendously satisfying. But it builds an accumulation of pens, not a collection; a collection is by definition focused in some way. So if you want to build a collection, examine your collection with an eye to its focus. Perhaps you collect a particular era, such as the 1920s:
Representing the Big Four from the 1920s:
Or perhaps you collect a specific pen species such as the Parker “51”:
A small sampling of the variety available in the Parker “51”
In either of these cases, and in many others, there is little point in poring over dealer cases that don’t contain the pens you want. Recognizing this simple fact can save you lots of time. And, by saving time, you might just beat someone else to the one table that has the olive-drab Morrison Patriot you needed to complete your World War II collection. By putting just the kinds of pens you collect on your list (and carrying the list with you at the show, of course), you’ll have a constant reminder of what you’re there to find, and you’ll be less vulnerable to distraction.
Once you figure out exactly what you collect, look at the pens you already have. Are you happy with them all? Are they bright enough? Are they in great working order? Is there more brassing than you like? You might want to pick one or two that you’re least happy with and put them on your wish list. Finding a mint Garnet Modern Stripe Eversharp Skyline, if the one you have has a clip gouge in the cap, can be every bit as rewarding as finding something you don’t already have.
Or, if you’re happy with the pens you have, think of a few appropriate additions. If you have Vacumatic Juniors in all the colors except a black one with a reticulated Visometer barrel, you have a pen for your list:
The first list you jot down can, and probably should, be pretty hasty. After getting a bunch of possiblities down on paper, go back and winnow the list down to a level that passes your reasonableness test. If you think buying five really nice pens is enough for one show, then you should probably make a final list of about ten, because you won’t find the five you most want.How Much Is That Parker in the Window?
Your bankroll isn’t infinite. And even if it were, you don’t want to spend more than a pen is really worth to get it. How do you know what a pen is really worth?
The first thing you must do is discard any and all printed price guides you have. Bowen, Fischler and Schneider, Erano, Martini, it doesn’t matter. In my experience as a dealer and buyer, by the time most price guides are printed, they’re already out of date — or they feature pricing different from this weekend’s show venue.
Many people turn to eBay, looking for pens like the ones they want and checking the prices of completed auctions. This, too, is an invalid way to establish prices for pens at shows. The pens you find on eBay are, for the most part, being sold unrestored and in many cases by people who have no clue about what their merchandise is really worth. Or, if they do, they’re hoping you don’t, and they’ll say the most preposterous things about their pens — claims that you, not having won the auctions in question, cannot ever verify. Pelting sellers with questions before auctions finish can be useful, but you would then have to trust that they’re not lying in their replies.
A pen at a pen show is being sold by an individual who typically knows what he or she has and expects you to be at least somewhat knowledgeable. Usually, dealers have either restored the pens themselves or hired a restorer to do it for them. There’s a cost involved in that work, and you should expect to pay for it. You are also buying from someone who has gone to considerable trouble and expense just to be there. In some cases, you’re buying from the greats of the hobby, and you should expect that these dealers in particular will have merchandise of a generally higher quality than what you’ll usually find on eBay.
Decide beforehand that you will be wary of dealers who have dirty pen trays with chips of plastic and generally inky, dusty, unkempt wares. I don’t say you should avoid these dealers entirely, because great bargains and truly wonderful treasures can be found among the detritus. But I and my son-in-law Don have come home, separated from our cash, with pens that seemed great on the outside but, when we opened them up on the bench, turned out to be ruined internally. It’s always possible to get a pen in less-than-expected condition from a clean freak, too, but in our experience it’s less likely.
The best way to know what a given pen is worth is to have some experience. Prices you’ve seen at other shows can help. Prices you see on eBay, while they are not fair prices for show pens, are something of a guide because they often give you a sense of a pen’s relative value against others, both of its kind and of other kinds. Two very similar pens can have markedly different values as a result of only seemingly slight differences in condition:
The upper pen here is worth over twice as much as the lower one because the lower
To some extent, this is homework you will have to do at the show, while you’re shopping. Compare prices among the dealers for pens of essentially the same kind and quality. And don’t be afraid to whip out a loupe and a ruler to examine and measure a pen you’re considering.
On the other hand, it’s not impossible that you will see that wonderful pen, your ultimate desideratum, at a price that’s a little, or a lot, unreasonable. You’ll be far better off if you have considered beforehand whether you’re willing to pay too much for that one special pen. And how much is too much? Are you willing to blow five pens’ worth on that single specimen? Maybe you are, and maybe you’ll come away with it. This, by the way, is why I recommended in Pen Shows I: Your First Pen Show that you take cash, no credit cards or checks, only to the amount you can afford. Don’t sell your plane ticket home to get just one more pen.Frankenpens, Anyone?
Because most of them are used, it follows that very few vintage pens are perfect. A ding here, a scratch there, a fleabite on the clip, these are things most hobbyists must accept in at least some of their pens. But we all want the very best. (This is why I suggested earlier that you consider upgrading a couple of your current specimens.) But it’s hard to scope out a pen’s value if it isn’t what you expect it to be, and you can protect yourself and your investment by knowing what makes up an authentic pen.
Consider the now-famous Sheaffer “Half Balances” (David Nishimura’s term). As illustrated here by a stickered Model K8AC, these pens have a streamlined Balance cap but a flat-ended barrel:
Once these pens were thought to be “Frankenpens,” stuck-together specimens comprising the married halves of two mismatched pens, and many collectors sneered at them except as possible sources for parts (or halves) to make up “authentic” pens. Then, some collectors began to suspect they were “transitional” pens, made up by Sheaffer out of old barrels and new caps just to use up inventory. (Everybody knew, after all, that the Flat-Top Sheaffers were discontinued when the Balance appeared in 1929.) That idea gave them some legitimacy, but still some collectors turned up their noses, believing that only an authenticated catalogued pen is “correct.”
Collectors now generally believe that these pens are authentic originals; catalog evidence suggests that Sheaffer marketed them well into the 1930s. One possible reason is that a flat-ended barrel is less costly to make than a streamlined one, and Sheaffer could therefore sell Half Balances for less. A purchaser, with only the cap exposed in the pocket or with the pen posted so the flat barrel end was hidden, gained the prestige of owning the more expensive pen.
But not all mismatched pens are authentic models waiting to be documented. Some are, and always will be, mismatched. The classic, and perhaps most common, example is a Vacumatic-filling Parker “51” with a cap bearing a short Arrow clip:
“51” caps illustrating short and long Arrow clips
Parker apparently introduced the Arrow clip in 1946 or 1947 to replace the aging Split Arrow, and Vacumatic-filling “51” Demis (and probably some standard-sized pens as well) were sold with it. But that was a long arrow, not a short one; the short arrow did not appear until a couple of years after Parker converted its “51” production over to the Aero-metric filler. So any Vacumatic-filling “51” with a short Arrow clip is a Frankenpen. This does not, however, mean that the pen is worthless. Each half can find a proper mate somewhere, and in fact the pen, as it is, is perfectly usable if what you want is not a collection specimen but rather an everyday user.
There are other, more subtle things to look for, too. A client once sent me a burgundy Parker Speedline Vacumatic, asking me to replace the incorrect black jewel in the blind cap with a correct striated jewel to match the pen. But that blind-cap jewel wasn’t black, and it wasn’t incorrect. If you looked at it from the side instead of straight on, you could see striations. Seen straight on, it was burgundy with a black center, a “bullseye” jewel created out of the material of the blind cap itself rather than screwed in, and it was exactly what should be on that pen. Confronted with a pen like this at a show, would you know what you were holding, or would you put it back and look for a “correct” one?
These examples illustrate the need for knowledge. You cannot be too well informed about the pens you want; but you can very easily be inadequately informed. Books are available to help you become more knowledgeable; many of the best ones are listed in our Reader’s Corner. (But remember, as I said earlier, to ignore the prices they give.) There are also Web sites such as this one, Fountain Pen Network, Pentrace, David Nishimura’s, and many more. (See my Pen Links page for links to many excellent sites.) Your fellow collectors can share information with you through email, on chat boards and newsgroups, and in gatherings both formal and informal at show venues. And you can pore over pens at shows, asking questions and filing away the information you gain to be used at later shows. Or at tables to be visited later. No time spent acquiring useful information can be considered a waste.You’ve Got the Right Stuff
The game plan laid out here differs only in specifics from the game plan laid out by a football, basketball, or hockey coach. Decide what your goal is (what pens you want), decide what you’re willing to do to achieve it (the size of your bankroll), and know your opponent (what can be wrong, and right, with your target pens). Now get out there on that trading floor and win!
Pen Shows III: How to Buy a Vintage Pen gives you some specifics about what to look for when you’re picking out that minty vintage gem to complete your collection. Or when you’re buying a good old writer just like the one your father used.