One common question I get from readers is “how do I go about purchasing a vintage fountain pen, if I'm just getting into collecting?” It’s a difficult question: there’s no per se right or wrong way to do it, and the reality is that it’s a trial-and-error process that I’m still learning myself. But here are a few thoughts to make your vintage pen buying experience as enjoyable as possible.
Do your research. From the time they hit the mainstream in the early 1900s until the 1970s, fountain pens were a commodity item. There are dozens of brands of vintage pens out there floating around. The pen forums (FPN, FPGeeks, FPBoard) are invaluable sources of information on vintage pen brands and all aspects of repair, use, collectibility, etc. Books, such as Andreas Lambrou's "Fountain Pens of the World", are also helpful, especially when they have good pictures. Once you know what interests you, check out the trading forums and their online classifieds sections to get a sense of the appropriate price range for the pen you have in mind. Prices will vary, but doing a survey of pens for sale online will give you a rough idea so that you don’t overpay too much. See my “Reference Links” page on this blog for some additional sources of free information.
Don’t spend a lot of money starting out. I understand this concept is completely subjective, and varies from person to person, but the point is to not spend more than you can afford to lose until you figure out what you are doing. For a lot of people, vintage Esterbrooks are a good place to start. Esties can run anywhere from $15 or less on eBay (unrestored) to $50-60 from a reputable pen restorer. The good thing about Esties is that they are fairly easy to restore to writing condition, so your odds of getting a bum pen are fairly low. Given how durable Esties are, you also shouldn’t have any qualms about using them as a daily writer.
If you absolutely must have that Parker Duofold, Vacumatic, or 51 as your first foray into vintage pens, purchase from a reputable vintage pen retailer or go to a pen show where you can inspect the pen in person. Many pens sold on eBay are unrestored and/or damaged in some way, and are therefore not in working order. I would advise you not to purchase an expensive vintage pen off of eBay unless you are relatively certain the pen is not a fake and you (1) are willing to pay extra money to have the pen professionally restored ($20-$75 on average, depending on what needs to be done); or (2) know for sure that the seller is a reputable vintage pen dealer and/or restorer. While the pens mentioned above are generally very durable and can be used as daily writers (especially the Parker Vac and the Parker 51), they require a certain level of experience/competence to restore correctly, and a botched restoration job could mean you end up with a massive ink leak in the middle of that important work meeting. This has happened to me. Also, vintage pens typically hold a LOT of ink—much more than the modern cartridge/converter filler—so spills can be “spectacular”.
Buy “user grade” pens, at least to start. To me, “user grade” means a pen that is in respectable condition, but isn’t an immaculate, mint-condition “collector’s piece” where you will destroy the value of the pen by inking it up and using it. To this day, I don’t buy pens that I wouldn’t feel comfortable using. Even though I have some pens that I wouldn't carry around in my pocket, everything in my collection can be used to work at my desk. Writing with a vintage pen is part of the fun; it’s difficult to get a sense of which pens “speak to you” without being able to write with them. Buying "user grade" also keeps the price down.
Accept that you will get burned at least once, but probably a few times. I don’t view this as being cynical so much as realistic. As with the market for any antique or collectible, there are unscrupulous people out there looking to rip off newbies and capitalize on rising prices as good vintage pens become more scarce. There are also a lot of honest people out there who simply don’t know what the hell they are doing. You can purchase a pen that appears competently restored, only to discover later (typically, the hard way) that you were wrong. I’ve also come across people at flea markets trying to sell off-brand pens like “Majestic” or “Wearever” for $100 or more, when the value of such pens rarely, if ever, exceeds $20 restored. Despite your best efforts, if you trade or buy enough, you eventually will spend money on a pen that wasn’t worth it. It happens to us all. Accept it and move on.
Temper your expectations. Vintage pens are antiques, often 75-100 years old. They can seem as usable as they were the day they were made (and often, they are), but people still tend to expect too much. Even the best-restored vintage pen may have the occasional hiccup. For example, the most common issues I run into involve temperature and air pressure fluctuation. If the temperature changes rapidly (such as when going from a cold car to a warm office), the pen may burp ink. Likewise, don’t carry filled vintage pens on an airplane unless you want a mess when you uncap the pen. Learn to accept that this is part of the fun, and doesn’t necessarily mean your pen is defective. As much as we all love fountain pens, they were never perfect technology. There was a reason the pen companies started developing ballpoints.
Consider collecting what I refer to as “new vintage.” One personal area of interest is Waterman pens from the 1980s and 1990s. These pens are sturdy cartridge/converter fillers, and therefore have the same “advantages” as modern pens. Because they are still relatively common, you often can find new old stock or mint condition pens for very reasonable prices. And, because these pens often don’t need restoration beyond a good polishing and cleaning, there’s less risk incurred in the purchase. Waterman, Sheaffer, Parker, and others all produced very high quality writing instruments during this time frame.
I hope this has been helpful. Some of these may seem like “common sense” points, but they’re still worth keeping in mind if you're considering entering the vintage pen world. Take it from someone who's been there: in the heat of a pen show, or when presented with a spur-of-the-moment, can’t-pass-it-up “great deal,” common sense can go out the window. But at the end of the day, I love using my vintage pens, keep them inked up regularly, and am always looking to add to the collection. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some reviews on specific vintage models, and will discuss different topics on collecting, use, and restoration.