The Pen Is More Valuable Than The Sword

Listening to fountain-pen collectors brings to mind the triumph and passion of treasure hunters: Did you hear about the Parker Aztec, engraved with elaborate Indian chief heads? An artist bought it for $55 at a church bazaar and sold it to a Houston collector for $10,000.

The fountain pen is enjoying a resurgence of popularity. While a handful of aficionados travel the world seeking antique, gold-nibbed trophies valued in tens of thousands of dollars, a growing number of penthusiasts enjoy buying collectibles without spending big bucks. The subscription list of Pen World, the bimonthly pen fancier's journal ($42 a year, 713 359-4363), has swelled to 28,000 since its launch in 1986. Pen Collectors of America (713 496-2290) has doubled in size in the past year, to 600 members.

People are attracted to collectible pens for varying reasons: nostalgia for bygone eras, pride in the image projected by using a classy writing instrument, and faith that rare pens will rise in value. Serious collectors wouldn't dream of actually writing with their rarest pens but admit they enjoy the compliments a good pen attracts. "It says something when I pull out a neat fountain pen at a deposition," says Stuart Schneider, a New Jersey lawyer and author of several books on pen collecting.

Valuing writing instruments can be complicated since dozens of brands are deemed collectible. U.S. collectors favor Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, and Wahl-Eversharp. Overseas, Germany's Montblanc and Pelikan, French makers Cartier and S.C. duPont, and the Japanese Sailor and Platinum are popular.

In the vintage market, pens produced before 1940 tend to be the most valuable. Pre-World-War I pens decorated with ornate filigree; miniature "Peter Pan" pens made to be hung from a cord; fat but sleek pens from the 1920s and 1930s that evoke images of old movies and Ernest Hemingway--all of these can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

In a collector's ideal world, pens would spend decades in the original box rather than banging around in a drawer. "Toothmarks and engraved initials detract from the value," says Glen Bowen, Pen World's editor. A damaged old pen can regain value if reconditioned with vintage parts. The preeminent first-aid station: New York's Fountain Pen Hospital (212 964-0580).

Rarity and demand also play a big part in value. A Waterman Snake, with emerald-eyed gold or silver serpents twined around the barrel, Parker Aztecs, and the 1924 Montblanc Spider Web, a black pen with a lacy, silver overlay, bring top dollar for rarity: from $5,000 to a stratospheric $40,000. Esterbrooks, though, were never rare. Until the company went out of business in 1971, these pastel, square-topped fountain pens were clipped to every student's folder. Recently, however, they have been in demand as a nostalgia item, pushing prices from $10 to as much as $75.

In response to renewed interest, many pen companies are releasing new limited-edition pens, often modeled on pens they made years ago. Montblanc's $1,600 Lorenzo DeMedici pen, which sold out through advance orders in April, 1992, echoes the ornate filigree of the pre-World-War-I pen. Waterman's $350 Patrician is a remake of a 1929 pen. Ballpoint versions generally go for about half the price of the fountain pens.

Pen shops in big cities are good starting places. The Golden Age of Writing Instruments by Stuart Schneider and George Fishler ($69.95, Schiffer) and Collectible Fountain Pens by Glen Bowen ($21.95, L-W Books) are helpful introductory books. Or get your nib wet at annual pen shows in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Jersey (in Morristown, Oct. 9 and 10, at the Headquarters Plaza Hotel).

New collector pens often lose value for a year or two after release, then regain their original price and begin to rise. A good antique pen should steadily appreciate. In the end, many collectors are as swayed by their hearts as by their portfolios. Says Patricia Peterson, a Naperville (Ill.) consultant to Montblanc: "The feel of a good gold point on fine paper is extremely sensual. You can't get that from a Bic."

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