Antique pens: What to look for and how to buy

Add to your collection with an antique or vintage pen with pedigree. Discover how to find the finest in a crowded market

A collection of antique pens

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.

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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.

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Image: Jim Marshall