How to collect antique pens

We use them everyday, yet the humble pen still has quite a pedigree. Discover how to find the finest

For those of us who can't resist the scratch and scrawl of handwriting a note, a pen is a crucial bit of kit. Old fountain and ballpoint pens are also things of beauty to look at, as many a penophile will tell you. Lucky for pen enthusiasts, the highlight exhibition at this month's Antiques for Everyone fair is a display of pens from the factories of Birmingham, the city that at one point produced three-quarters of the world's pens, and alongside it the jaw-dropping collection of writing equipment specialist, Jeremy Collingridge, which amounts to over 600 examples.

Here the curators at Antiques for Everyone give their guide for what aspiring pen collectors should look for.

What to look for

The collector’s market for vintage pens, particularly fountain pens, took off in the 1970s. Fountain pen collectors go for brand, size, rarity and quality. Many collectors are men and so favour larger pens that fit in their hands. Pens that look good, those with gold-plated overlays, lacquerwork and coloured celluloid decoration are more sought after. Condition is very important, only restorers want pens that don’t work or have cracked or missing parts, and it’s worth checking that replaced parts, such as nibs and clips, are correct for the model. Above all, you can buy many superb examples by classic makers for less than £100.

The brands to buy

For most collectors, three major brands dominate: Parker, Montblanc and Waterman. That said, there are many more names to look out for such as Shaeffer, Mabie Todd & Co, (Swan), Esterbrook, S. Mordan & Co, Aurora, Stephens, Burnham, Conklin, De La Rue, Mentmore, Valentine, Croxley Dickinson, Pelican and many associated and lesser makers across the world.

The pen still commonly singled out as the best of all time, the Parker 51, was made in America and introduced in 1941. It was very popular throughout its production and can still claim the highest sales volume of any fountain pen. It's valued because it's a highly reliable pen with a good writing style. Production spanned from 1941 to the early 1970s and it was made in many different styles and variations. As you might expect, examples dating from 1941 command high prices (though rarely in excess of £1,000). More recent pieces go for less than £50, always dependent on condition.

How to judge a pen

Before you spend, it’s good to get the feel and weight of a pen, even if it’s a trophy piece that's only for display. For a vintage pen in restored and working condition, search out the specialist dealers at fairs and markets (often the same people sell silver and jewellery) and spend some time looking and learning before you decide what brand and type of pen you want to collect.

Pens are easy to package and post, so the trade is wider than ever online and it’s easy to sit at home and buy the most interesting and rare examples. This has meant that many less widely appreciated brands, like a Conway Stewart, are now proving popular across the world. You can buy many elegant top brand pens for less than £50. Modern limited editions should be regarded with caution - they usually only appreciate in value if kept with their boxes and paperwork.

Find out more

The pen trade will feature in a special exhibition at the Antiques for Everyone Summer Fair held at the NEC, Birmingham from 21st–24th July 2016, presented by Birmingham’s Pen Museum which saw the city at the centre of a worldwide trade in the 19th century. The exhibition will also feature the long-held collection of Jeremy Collingwood, a pen specialist, which includes a number of special boxed pens, each with their own fascinating story, such as the rare silver repoussé snail engraved eyedropper pen from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and a pen forming part of the HMS Victory casket.

For those keen to discover more about collecting, there will be an exciting programme of talks. ‘Inside the Nib of a Pen’ and ‘The Birmingham Pen Trade - new opportunities for collecting’ will focus solely on pens while celebrity speakers from BBC’s Antiques Roadshow will be giving more general tips on collecting.

Antiques for Everyone is at Halls 18-19, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, UK, B40 1NT from 21st-24th July. 0844 581 0827; antiquesforeveryone.co.uk

Image: Jim Marshall

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