Collector's Corner: Sign up to an investment in the write stuff

Fountain pens are beautiful, useful, and collectable, says Gwyn Jones, and the market in them is growing

They were once old hat, a writing instrument for middle-aged traditionalists. Today, however, fountain pens are trendy accessories for discerning young people and can even be an investment.

The fountain pen market has changed over the past 10 years, says Bloomsbury Auctions' Alexander Crum Ewing. "It's evolved from a pure collectors' market to more individuality, and a greater breadth of collecting has resulted in a rise in prices in some areas but a drop in others," he says. "There's also been a renaissance of the luxury writing instrument and so people are choosing both style as well as function."

Simon Gray at the Battersea Pen Home says the internet has had a major effect on the pen market. "The internet - and eBay in particular - has levelled the playing field and opened up the market," Gray says.

"Collectors can now acquire pens from around the world. You can go to eBay and see three or four pens a week that were considered very rare 10 years ago. That has brought down some prices, but the market has got busier. More people are buying and using pens. Eight or nine years ago we added 300 to 400 people to our database a year; now we are adding 1,500 to 1,600."

Gray says that, while collectors used to be people who had no intention of ever using their pens, the new market is for people who want a practical writing instrument. He explains: "Increasingly, fountain pens are seen as style accessories. In the same way you might select a pair of cufflinks or a watch to wear, men are choosing a particular pen to take with them to the office."

The pen market splits into three areas: vintage, post-war and modern. For vintage collectors, the golden age of the fountain pen was the 1920s and 1930s, with many people interested in the large or oversized pens by Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman or Montblanc. In this country, Mabie Todd made the Swan pen while De La Rue made the highly sought-after Onoto pen. The next rank includes Conklin from the US and Wahl-Eversharp.

"The pens that have gone up in value are those which were overlooked and undervalued," says Crum Ewing. "Examples include the British Conway Stewart, which was regarded as mass-produced. The company has been revived and positioned itself in the market as a heritage brand making a quality product. When people like Tony Blair give a pen as a gift to statesmen, it's a Conway Stewart, and the publicity has encouraged collectors."

The post-war market includes pens such as Parker's 51, 61 and 75, produced from 1939 onwards until about 1972.

"You can put together a very affordable collection for between £50 and £500 each. This is a market that, 20 years ago, would have been ignored, but time has enabled people to realise how good some of these pens are."

For investors, the best thing to do with a modern pen is to leave it shrink-wrapped in the box. Some models are already very sought after. Crum Ewing adds: "The Montblanc De Lorenzo de Medici that came out in 1992 was their first limited-edition pen and at the time it cost about £800. The first ones we had in auction sold for roughly retail price in 1992, but the last one I sold was last year for £3,000." The Montblanc Hemingway, also produced in 1992, is another modern pen that has been gaining in value. The Parker Lucky Curve Duofold remains stable in price but there is room for growth - they are great pens and many people buying them today want to use them, not put them in a box.

The eyedropper-filled pens of the 1890s and 1910s, the black pens embellished with gold and silver overlays, are another area of the market that is quiet. The pens were favoured by old-school collectors and so prices have fallen back and they're under-appreciated. Crum Ewing also thinks the Parker 51 will rise in value. "A new book has come out on Parker 51s and will probably lead to an increase in price for the rarer models," he says.

Gray says that some customers are clearly buying for investment purposes. "A few people buy pens for their children with the idea they'll put the pens away and hopefully will be worth more," he says. "If you buy a vintage pen now that is in top condition, it will go up in value simply because there aren't increasing numbers of them. The number of mint pens is going to get whittled away year on year."

If you are going to buy for investment, choose the best quality and don't use the pen - condition is critical. Also, buy second-hand, not retail, as most pens instantly lose a chunk of their value.

Contacts

* Battersea Pen Home: 01992 578 885

* Bloomsbury Auctions: 020 7495 9494

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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