Tim's Thoughts

Why Do You Collect Fountain Pens?

No, this is not the usual note about collecting versus not collecting. This Thought comes from a number of conversations in recent months about the specific reasons underlying fountain pen collecting. I’ve noted many times that my small collection is a motley crowd of pens that I find interesting and love to use, although I can no longer say with honesty that I use every one every year. That requires far too much maintenance than there is time to put into it, but I don’t love the ones I don’t use any less for it.

More than a couple of you have told me that you’re collecting vintage now because their scarcity and cost continues to rise. This is general, genuine scarcity: the quantity of pens of a given period only exist in finite numbers, made worse by disintegration and discard by both their owners and estate sellers. The probability of my recently-acquired Parker Big Red appearing at the bottom of an estate sale junk box, in fantastic condition, was doubly low, since they were made in low numbers and are rapidly disintegrating. (And no, with thanks for your queries when I posted it on Instagram, it won’t be available for purchase anytime soon.) 

I also hear complaints that all the good pens are disappearing into collections and never see public sale. This is also true, but it has always been true. However, this is at least partly offset because the collections of the first group of major vintage collectors, those who first started collecting in the 1960s and 1970s, are now reaching the open market, a form of generational cyclicality. So yes, collecting now because you see the pens for sale is a good reason, although I haven’t heard of any pens becoming extinct. 

It’s also true that availability is not the same for all pens, vintage or new. Double-jewel Parker 51s, the largest Vacumatics, and Sheaffer PFMs were manufactured in low quantities as part of being premier items when new, so are still both scarce and expensive.  In general, while prices are doubtless rising, particular models’ market cachet ebb and wane, and  the pens that are most available, like typical Parker 51s and Sheaffer Balances, are so largely because so many were made and made so well. Again, I would agree that collecting premier pens will always be a good idea; they’ll always be great pens. 

Some of you have also told me that your collecting goal is a complete line of a given pen, every size, color, and variant. A good friend has almost every Esterbrook..another almost every Aurora 88 nib style (there were 17…). These are staggering jobs, worthy if quixotic quests that create huge pleasure in the hunt and look spectacular in the exhibition case. To all of you, I’ll be happy to be the source of the pen you’re seeking, and completely agree with the notion of needing a healthy obsession, but I’ll reserve the right to be amused. 

I’ve also heard from a few people who collect pens for their attributes — pink pens, pens with embossed patterns, overlay pens, tiny or oversize pens — all of these feed collections and look fantastic together. I find these interesting because they focus on the object, not its writing capabilities. Again, I appreciate the goal, but it’s not for me. 

I’d like to learn why you collect! Collecting is not a passive activity, it is the result of a decision to keep this pen but not that one. What makes that decision happen for you?