Penman No. 219: The Chase and the Company

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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.

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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.

Penman No. 109: Ode to the 149

IMG_4575Penman for Monday, August 11, 2014

 

FOR THE past few decades, nothing has declared “I’m a fountain pen!” more emphatically than the Montblanc 149, also known as the Diplomat. This is the daddy of modern pens, the big kahuna, the standard by which other pens—fairly or unfairly—are measured. You’ll know a 149 when you see it. It’s as long and as fat as a cigar, which is probably why it’s been traditionally considered the quintessential man’s pen, the kind you’d find in the pockets of Supreme Court Justices, oldtime newspaper editors, and connoisseurs such as my friend the architect Toti Villalon, although fashionable but feisty ladies have been known to sport one.

You’ll also know that that big black pen is a Montblanc because of the white star (sometimes also called the “snowflake”) on top of its cap. Montblanc, which started out in Germany in 1908 as the Simplo Filler Pen Co., later chose the now-iconic white star to suggest the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc (“white mountain”), the highest massif in the Alps. You’ll see the number 4810 on a Montblanc nib because that’s the height, in meters, of the mountain. (Montblanc, the pen or the pen company, is always spelled as one word; Mont Blanc the mountain is always two.) Some 149s also will have a white diamond—or even nothing—in lieu of the “snowflake,” which can be construed as the Star of David: not good for sales in many places in the Middle East.

The 149’s cap ring (like that of the 146, its junior sibling) will have “Meisterstuck” engraved on it; that’s German for “masterpiece.” This year, Montblanc marks the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck line, of which the 149—introduced in the 1950s—remains the flagship; appropriately enough, a special 149 with rose-gold trim was produced to mark the event.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then there’s no pen more admired—because none more copied—on earth than the 149 (or, more accurately, the slightly smaller 146, but most people wouldn’t know the difference). You can almost be sure that, somewhere in Shenzhen, there are shops and families devoted to one and one thing only: the production of fake Montblancs, for sale in such places as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or for export by the container van to countries like the Philippines, where they will be sold as cheap corporate giveaways or passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting buyers. Given this traffic, there are websites and pages just as ardently dedicated to spotting Montblanc fakes (here’s a quick tip: if your “Montblanc”’s nib says anything like “Iridium Point Germany,” it’s fake—that’s a generic steel nib employed by many Chinese makers.)

The real 149 is a classic, and deservedly so. Montblanc and the 149 gained popularity in the 1950s and the 1960s, as Americans returning from the War and from their growing contact with postwar Europe became more familiar and comfortable with things German, and with the high quality of German goods. There’s a story that when John F. Kennedy visited what was then West Germany to sign a treaty with his counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German fumbled around for a pen, and JFK sprang to the rescue by offering his—a 149.

(Image from dujour.com)

That 149, wherever it is now, should fetch a princely sum on the collectors’ market (like the big red Parker Duofold that Douglas MacArthur signed Japan’s surrender papers with). Indeed, even a new 149 (you can check it out locally at Rustan’s, the authorized dealer for the Philippines) will set most people back a few months’ wages. You can get a thousand cheap ballpoints for one 149—if a writing tool is all you’re looking for. Clearly, that’s not what 149 fanciers—yep, I’m one of them—have in mind.

Among 149 collectors, the pens to go for are not the shiny ones you can grab at the MB boutique, but the vintage ones made of celluloid from the 1950s and 1960s. The old, tricolor (gold-platinum-gold) nibs are also thought to be more desirable because they flex—the tines are soft and can spread apart, producing line variations that most modern fountain pens and certainly no ballpoints and rollerballs can.

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At one time or another, I’ve had maybe ten 149s in the collection, which isn’t too strange because I buy and sell pens to support the habit. I usually pick them up on eBay for a whole lot less than they’d go for in the store, which also means I assume a lot of risks that newbies would be well advised to steer clear of. I’ve kept three of these, and regularly use one. When people ask me why I go around with such a fancy and expensive pen in my pocket, I tell them that it’s because it makes me feel like a real writer, and because I’m 60, and should be able to use and enjoy what I damn well please before I croak.

Not everyone is a fan of Montblanc and of the 149. There are legions of rabid Montblanc haters who eschew the brand in the belief (somewhat justified) that many people buy Montblanc to acquire instant status, and that the company itself has encouraged this pretentiousness by marketing the 149’s plastic as “precious resin.” Detractors see this as pure hype, designed to rack up sales among ambitious junior lawyers and middle managers.

Do you think I care what they say? I’ll never be able to afford the Range Rover or the rose-gold IWC Portuguese of my big-boy fantasies, but when I make loopy figure 8s with my vintage 149—found online for next to nothing at a small auction house in Ohio—I feel like there’s justice in the universe, after all.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 35: New Pens for the New Year

THE HOLIDAYS and turning 60 this month gave me all kinds of excuses to acquire new pens, and here are two of the best ones: a Montblanc Oscar Wilde, issued in 1994, and an Onoto Magna Classic in tortoiseshell, handmade in the UK just last month. I’m broke but happy 😉

They do look good beside my old mainstay, the Agatha Christie. It’s like having three gorgeous girlfriends to take out on a date (shhhh, don’t tell Beng!).

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 28: Traveling Companions

AM DOWN in Jakarta for a conference this week and brought two workhorse pens with me for signing books: my ever-reliable 1993 MB Agatha Christie and a 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, the classic “Big Red.”

I originally bought the Big Red for resale, but decided to keep it when I saw how clean it was. Look how sharp the milling is on the black hard rubber part of the cap:

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 19: There’s a Snake in My Pocket

Agatha1SHE’S HERE—that obscure object of my ardent and longstanding desire, the Agatha Christie fountain pen from Montblanc. If you see me walking minus an arm and a leg, that’s what it cost me—but I’m deliriously happy. Here’s that red-eyed beast up close (yes, those eyes are real rubies):

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