December 2011: This Stupid Economy and Your Fountain Pen Collection

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • Bill Clinton wrested the U.S. presidency from incumbent George Bush in 1992 by repeatedly saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” on television, from the bully pulpit, and at every stop in between. No doubt that one will be dusted off and repeated ad nauseam throughout 2012.

Even if you do have the cash to invest in more fountain pens, think about what’s more important: In this economic climate, you probably have some friends and family who could use a bit more support than your pen collection, right? Go over your list, check it twice. Extra Fine Points

The fact is, this stupid economy is also affecting the collectibles market, in which our fountain pens reside. In two ways: First, as reported here some months ago, a skyrocketing gold market has brought steel nibs back into vogue for pen collectors. Before just a year or two ago, pens were mostly gold-nibbed, and while some collectors really were collecting fountain pens as the luxury items many makers represented they were, most fountain pen users demanded gold for their everyday writers…and the market for steel nibs was limited.

Now, gold-nibbed pens truly are for high rollers or the occasional splurge, and — at least for those buying new pens — those sparkling yellow nibs add a hefty premium to the purchase price such that steel nibs are not only an alternative, they’re the default. Especially for the college-aged folks just discovering fountain pens.

Once would think that vintage pens would become more affordable on the secondary market. As worldwide financial doldrums put a choke-hold on many collectors’ (and their families’) personal economies, it would follow that, like the sports collectibles market, prices would be down. In some cases, way down.

Collecting Counterpoint

One way to stretch limited pen-collecting dollars is to collect something that others find uninteresting. For example, Richard goes after oddball filling systems. The two pens shown here, a third-tier Welty and a second-tier Grieshaber, are pre-1910 hump fillers, made to cash in on Conklin’s Crescent-Filler patent without infringing on it. They cost Richard a combined price of less than $100.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

But the gold thing has put a monkey wrench in that trend. Take a look at eBay recently closed auctions (take the Sheaffer’s sold in the last month, for example, sorted from highest to lowest price), and you’ll probably notice that prices are about the same as they were from a few years back, when the hobby was high-flying, as was the economy.

A few other collectibles markets seem to be on the uptick . Oddly, in the last week, major news outlets did features on two categories I — a 15-year veteran reporter on junk people buy — was just barely aware of as fringe collectibles, porn-movie posters and “murderabilia.” In fact, before those articles came out I would have argued as to whether they were collectibles at all.

But you can’t argue with the winning bids the top-end pieces realize on the auction market, and remember there was a time when no one considered fountain pens legitimate collectibles. Kind of like now how many fountain pen purists frown on pencil collectors or ballpoint collectors — but with enough books and Web sites devoted to both, they’re legit, too.

Write it down: I’m saying here that this combination of less cash and flat-to-rising costs of fountain pens will give rise to new categories of pen collectibles, especially when you start to realize that because of laptops, smartphones and tablets like the iPad, pens themselves will soon become relics of a bygone era.

Because they are cheaper to acquire and mass-produced in greater quantities than fountain pens, I predict that soon the more esoteric categories like “floaty pens” — and next time there’s a really slow month I promise I’ll inflict an Extra Fine on you devoted to on my burgeoning collection of flashing LED pens, with supporting hi-def video clips — as well as pharmaceutical pens, which people are starting to collect, too, will have their own collector guidebooks. Maybe they do already, and I just didn’t notice.

Generics vs. Brand Names

Pharmaceutical pens are becoming collectible. They’re made all over the world, and their quality can range from absolute garbage to surprisingly good. The pen shown here, including free personalized engraving, was a giveaway at a doctors’ convention. It was made by Schneider, a respected German manufacturer of popular-priced pens, and it’s a very solid pen with a look that’s funky enough to be cool even if you’re not a collector.

Ballpoint pen

All this is to say that, as we cruised through Thanksgiving and whip around whatever December holiday you and yours enjoy — and the New Year we all do — be thankful for the pens you have, and don’t really worry about the ones you’d like but can’t afford. If you can afford to snap up some nice vintage pens in this down economy, I’ll bet it will ultimately turn out to be a buy-low scenario that would enable one to sell high once this down cycle ends — even if gold prices sink back to more reasonable levels.

But even if you do have the cash, think about what’s more important: In this economic climate, you probably have some friends and family who could use a bit more support than your pen collection, right? Go over your list, check it twice, and think long and hard about it. If push comes to shove and you still feel the pressing need to buy pens, give them a fountain pen for that December holiday (or eight of them, if you’re celebrating Hanukkah, ha!).

Until next month, Happy Holidays.


cover Further Reading: Writing Through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen, by Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) might get some of us down, but here’s a novel tool for the pen collector that may help overcome its symptoms: Writing, and more of it! See how the author of this remarkable volume recommends taking on the winter blahs.

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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