Penman for Monday, October 3, 2016
THERE COMES a time in every collector’s life when he or she realizes that the road has suddenly ended—that there’s hardly anything more to be found, no further byway to be explored. It’s a sad acknowledgment but also in some ways a relief, knowing that one’s disposable income (and better yet, one’s savings) can go to more prosaic but in all likelihood more practical objects—a roof repair, or new tires for the car, or a larger fridge, all long overdue.
None of those, of course, will quite compare with the gleam of a 1786 Carolus III dos reales or an early edition of the Noli or Fili, or a 1950s Mercedes 180 (nothing too special, just one of my favorites) tucked away in an old garage. Or, in my case, a 1936 Wahl Eversharp Coronet, widely upheld to be the “acme of Art Deco pen design.” I’ve lusted after a Coronet in more than 30 years of pen collecting, even keeping a picture of it in my burned-out Faculty Center office, and maybe came close to acquiring it once. But like all “grail” pens, it remained a wisp of a dream, within tantalizing sight but always beyond one’s feeble grasp.
I knew I’d come to the end of my collecting road when the thought struck me the other day that if a Coronet were to be offered to me tomorrow for a reasonable price, I would probably smile and politely decline, preferring to keep it a pretty phantom forever. If I actually held it in my hand it might seem dull and stale, its Pyralin inserts (whimsically described as “Dubonnet red”) somehow lacking in the fire of fantasy.
Come to think of it, I’ve bought only two or three pens over the past three months—at least one of them for resale—when I used to acquire one almost every week. At its peak three or four years ago, my collection of vintage and modern pens numbered more than 300, ranging from the 1890s to the present and representing many of the best pens of every period (excepting the Coronet), by brand and model. It was a collection put together over many years of patient pursuit, of moving up from one model to the next tier, of selling five average pens to buy a first-rate one, of foregoing ampler lunches in my grad-school days in the American Midwest to be able to afford mid-range Parker Duofolds, Vacumatics, and 51s.
Some of those early buys turned out to be bargains and lifetime keepers. Back in 1987, I agonized for a week over whether to purchase an ebony Wahl Eversharp Doric from 1934—another Art-Deco icon, with a 12-sided cap and barrel and a latticed cap band—for the princely sum of $28. Thankfully beauty won over economy and I still keep the Doric, now easily ten times its purchase price.
Another classic I found at a Milwaukee antique shop in 1990 for a small fraction of its true value was a Parker Duofold Senior in Mandarin Yellow, a large fat pen from the mid-1920s, much sought after for the rarity of its color. Bought for $68, I had to resell it a year later for $380—still well below what it would fetch today—when I was living on turkey backs and trash fish on my meager stipend. And how can I forget the gorgeous 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red which I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and based my “Penmanship” story on?
It was stories like these that kept my interest in collecting alive, almost as much as the pens themselves, the remaining 150 or so of which I can’t possibly all use and learn to love, even if I rotated them every other day. I still value my best pens as marvels of both art and engineering, which also just happen to lay exquisitely shaded lines and whorls of glorious ink on fallow paper.
I suppose the end began a couple of years ago, when I turned 60. I started selling pens from my collection—even pens I had kept for over 25 years—to allow the members of our pen club, especially our millennial newbies, the privilege of owning and writing with something their grandparents may have used. That’s also when I began using my best pens, like the Montblanc Agatha Christie, on a regular basis—a bit like driving a Rolls to the 7-11—but my reasoning was, as we UP people like to say, if not now, when? What might have been ostentation at age 35 can now only be fondness in a senior, and the silver-snake-clipped Agatha gives me sublime pleasure even in the pocket, and many times more so when I sign my name—even on office forms—with its double-broad stub nib and sepia ink.
Such, I think, are the pleasures of aging, when one turns from sheer accumulation to discernment, and to the dawning acceptance of the finitude of all things, including and especially material objects, no matter how lovely and intricate and painstakingly acquired, be they pens, cars, watches, or Persian carpets.
Whereas I used to check eBay literally a dozen times a day (employing a special search term to ferret out the most desirable vintage pens), today I hardly blink when, say, a 1928 Parker Big Red sails under my nose for less than $100—let someone enjoy the bargain, as I’ve done myself many times. It was the hunt that kept me in the game, but I’ve learned that spotting the target but letting someone else take the shot could be just as satisfying.
In what was likely my last big pen adventure, a few months ago, I found another of my “grail” pens—the much-coveted Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992—being sold online for about half its usual price (if you really want to know how much these babies cost, try Google). The seller was in Malaysia—reason, perhaps, for Western buyers suspicious of anything too far East to shy away, but to me a heaven-sent circumstance.
I closed the deal (drawing deeply on my savings, but what the heck, a Hemingway appreciates better than a time deposit) and, in a moment of inspiration, I did some quick computing and figured that it was only marginally more expensive and a lot safer to fly out to KL on a budget fare and pick up the pen personally the next day than to entrust everything to PayPal and a courier service. And that’s what I did. I always enjoy KL for whatever excuse takes me there, but I daresay no Argonaut ever crossed the South China Sea just to pick up an orphaned Hemingway and bring it home. (To be honest, it’s my second Hemingway—I use the other one, the gift of a generous friend, exclusively to grade student papers, in a bright orange ink.)
Over the next few years, I’ll be trying to bring down my remaining stash to an absolute core of about two dozen pens, which will be our daughter Demi’s inheritance from me (sorry, anak, no tracts of sugarland or bubbleback Rolexes here). They won’t necessarily be the most expensive pens—Demi can sell those off, if I don’t—but the ones most laden with story, blobbing like ink at the very top of the nib, eager to be disgorged. It’s been a privilege playing steward to these fine shapers of fine words, and I may miss the chase but not yet the company.