The write stuff

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Antique and collectable pens can command eye-watering prices at auction. Discover which factors bolster their vaue.

“With a single Wirt pen I have earned the family's living for many years,” said the great American author Mark Twain at the turn of the 20th Century. “With two, I could have grown rich.”

Twain knew a thing or two about fountain pens, and also the power of marketing. He would later switch loyalty to the manufacturer Conklin, fronting their advertisement campaign for a pen with a self-filling clip on the side. “I prefer it to ten other fountain pens because it carries its filler in its own stomach. It is a profanity-saver: it cannot roll off the desk.”

For Twain, the appeal of a pen lay in its usability. To collectors of antique pens today, there is much more at play. Many are drawn to the heyday manufacturers such as Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Conklin and Montblanc. Others collect gold, silver or hard rubber pens. The style and material of nibs offer an additional opportunity for collectors to celebrate and compete, with the wide music nibs – made for composers – being especially sought after. 

Of course, the ballpoint collectors have tribes of their own, with some drawn to luxury items, and others intrigued by the early mass-market models by Bic, Biro, Eversharp and Paper Mate.

Close up of Tibaldi Fulgor Nocturnus

Above: The Fulgor Nocturnus, made by Tibaldi, a one-off fountain pen that sold for US$8 million.

Few products have such a wide price range, from a handful of pennies in a newsagent to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a diamond-encrusted Montblanc, Caran d’Ache or Aurora at auction. The most expensive on record is the Fulgor Nocturnus, made by Tibaldi, a one-off fountain pen that sold for US$8 million at a Shanghai charity auction.

As with stamps, coins, watches and even cars, it’s the limited editions that create the most buzz when they are found at the back of Granddad’s writing desk or a dusty display cabinet in a curiosity shop. In 2019, two of the world’s rarest pens were discovered in a desk drawer in the British Midlands town of Lichfield during a routine contents valuation.

None of us can have as many virtues as the fountain-pen, or half its cussedness; but we can try.

Mark Twain


Both made by Montblanc, it turns out they were dedicated to Sir Winston Churchill and Pope Julius II. The former has an 18-carat pink gold barrel, its cap top ringed with 53 diamonds to commemorate 1953, the year Churchill was knighted. His distinctive V for Victory sign features in the clip design, and his portrait is engraved on its nib. The owners had to sit down when they were told the guide price of £30,000.

Churchill himself used a Montblanc to sign important documents, as did John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. Queen Elizabeth II of England has used the same burgundy Parker 51 throughout her reign, while former UK prime minister Theresa May also used a gold-nibbed Parker to sign the letter that triggered Brexit’s infamous Article 50, propelling her country out of the European Union. Left-hander Bill Clinton ended the presidential tradition of using fountain pens, switching to a Cross rollerball. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have followed his lead, while Donald Trump favours the less subtle Sharpie marker pen.

Letter of Notification from the Prime Minister to the President of the European Council setting out the United Kingdom's intention to withdraw from the European Union. Signed by the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office.

Above: Letter of Notification from the Prime Minister to the President of the European Council setting out the United Kingdom's intention to withdraw from the European Union. Signed by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May in the Cabinet Office.

Famous people and their pens

American novelist Ernest Hemingway was a trailblazer in pens as much as literature. As a young soldier in Italy, he fell in love with the forerunner to Montegrappa pens, before the brand became famous worldwide. Albert Einstein was another to help set the reputation for a manufacturer, using a Pelikan 100N to scribble his theories on relativity.

British writers Arthur Conan Doyle and Graham Greene understood the power of suspense – and also craftsmanship – both preferring the Parker Duofold to write their manuscripts.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas liked the Parker 51, as does British actress Emma Watson today, proving the iconic designs hold timeless appeal. Fellow thespian Kristen Stewart is noted for her limited edition Tibaldi pieces.

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, used his own experiences of espionage to invent gadgets for 007 to foil his enemies. These included a pen gun in Never Say Never Again, a poison pen in Moonraker and a pen grenade that is detonated with three clicks in GoldenEye. Fleming himself used a Bic pen. He loved it so much that he commissioned a golden top to protect it.

Close up of Tibaldi Fulgor Nocturnus

Storing valuable pens

Expensive new pens often come in cases, pouches or wallets, and it’s these kinds of protection that most collectors also use for antique writing instruments. Damage most commonly occurs when posting (ie. replacing the pen cap), so the advice is to either do it very gently or not at all. Vintage pens, especially those made of hard rubber, can also deteriorate in sunlight.

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