December 2009: Carrying Valuable Pens: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • Richard was resacking a Vacumatic “51” for me the other day when he made a comment that made a twinge in my gut that meant, “Uh-oh, this is something I’m eventually going to be writing about.”

This wasn’t just any “51”. It was one I’d found on one of my most successful antiquing runs, cruising the Berkshires on my motorcycle. While it’s nice to buy pens online or at shows, it’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel or dynamiting them out of a pond, at least to me. Spending a spring or summer day riding into the great wide open, happening upon pens, negotiating their purchase, and restoring them (or in my case, watching Richard restore while I gofer Diet Pepsis when he gets parched) is much more richly rewarding.

Richard was resacking a Vacumatic “51” for me the other day when he made a comment that made a twinge in my gut that meant, “Uh-oh, this is something I’m eventually going to be writing about.” Extra Fine Points

This one came into my collection many moons ago; it was probably one of the first 20 or 30 Vacumatics Richard worked on, and its filler’s a little bit on the creaky side. When I got off my bike and cracked into the pens I’d gotten (there were a couple at-the-time more interesting 1920s Duofolds and a Wearever in there) I pulled out the “51”, which had been a throw-in on the dealer’s part because it was covered with jet-black grunge. I remember I’d gotten a handful of pens for less than $100.

Laying down the Simichrome on the “51” — thinking it was probably a silver-capped beater at best — I was stunned to see gold underneath.

Fountain pen

It took quite some time to de-grunge it, but when the process was complete, this gorgeous find quickly became the “top get” of that cache. I swapped away the Duofolds to Richard, because he needed to dip into his at-the-time meager parts inventory just to make them functional and, ultimately, salable; they were no good to me.

This beauty, however, remains in my collection today. The Dove Gray body says fourth quarter 1948, the wonderfully uncommon vermeil cap — one of Parker’s “Custom” caps, the design featuring alternating wavy and straight lines — came from the war years, so we know it didn’t leave Janesville on this penFountain pen (but who cares?). At any rate, it’s probably worth a couple hundred bucks more than the pens I typically carry: Wearevers, Targas, or working-class 1950s Sheaffer Snorkels.

Which led to Richard’s comment that set off this essay: “This is probably too valuable for you to be carrying around.” When he says stuff like that, he’s not just tossing it off the top of his head. He analyzes the pen, he knows my habits, and is attempting to give me sound advice as a fellow collector and member of his family.

At first, I agreed with him, which goes against most everything I’ve said in this space over the years (here and here), which typically amounts to “In most cases, carry what you like. After all, you can’t take it with you when you’re dead and gone.”

My thinking has changed a little, I realized, remembering I’d admonished Richard just days before as he contemplated destickering and carrying a safety pen he’d purchased at the Columbus show. My logic was, destickering would be a selfish act, as the hobby needs this pen in mint-stickered condition more than he needs to carry it — that thing’s about 100 years old!

Fountain pen

While my “51” wasn’t by any means stickered, it was something that I could devalue by dropping on the ground or accidentally mixing with the wrong junk in my bag, like, say, my Leatherman multitool.

Reflecting on the thrill of the chase of this pen, and remembering its sentimental value and accidental discovery, however, I eventually decided, nah, this one will be one to carry. I’ve got Parkers and Sheaffers that I’ll never carry, safely ensconced in storage. As for this one, it will be another one of my 25 or so hobby ambassadors, out there in the world gathering comments and “can I try it?” requests. It’s almost too valuable, just barely not quite.

It’s clear, however, that I now have a threshold of tolerance. Any pen can make an appearance at a pen show for the inevitable “show-and-tell” in which we collectors love to engage, or to display for swap/sell potential. But I’m interested in hearing what you consider a carrying pen vs. a keep-safe-at-home pen. Is it dollar-value threshold? Is there a date you keep in mind that divides them? Is it a mint thing, i.e., only pens that are less-than-mint get to go out in the world? Rarity? Sentimentality? What drives you? Email in your opinions, and if I get enough to make a full column, I’ll reprint them here.


cover Further Reading: Parker “51”, by David and Mark Shepherd
 
Whether you collect the Parker “51” or not, you need this book. Heck, if you even know what a “51” is, you probably need it. This is a wonderful book, describing the pen’s amazing design, its evolution and marketing, and more. Profusely illustrated with superb photos by Mark Shepherd, vintage ads and other ephemera, and more.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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