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March 30, 2010

Mightier than the Sword

Michel Audiard, an artist in the Loire Valley, has gained an international reputation for his extraordinary sculptures—but not the kind carved from marble. Audiard creates one-of-a-kind, hand-signed fountain pens, carving tiny, intricate designs into each cap—the head of a wild boar, say, or a portrait of poet Dante Alighieri. Each of these "pen sculptures" is as meticulously handcrafted as a piece of fine jewelry, and some are even adorned with diamonds, gold nuggets, or rough-cut emeralds. Others use more imaginative and exotic materials—a barrel covered in ivory from the tusk of a Siberian mammoth, for instance, or a clip that's made of meteorite fragments millions of years old. Ranging in price from $1,500 to $125,000, Audiard's creations are owned by Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, the king of Morocco, the Aga Khan, and Boris Yeltsin.

"I make the fountain pens of a madman for kings, and the fountain pens of a king for madmen," Audiard quips.

Although fountain pens were on the verge of extinction in the 1970s, today they are treated as objets d'art; collectors invest in them the way they would in paintings or sculpture. Pen designers have responded in kind with creations that, like Audiard's, are ever more elaborate and unique.

"You show a certain stature and sophistication when you use a fountain pen," says Alain Viot, the president and CEO of Cartier North America. "They reflect your own personal style."

Cartier, which has made jeweled pens since the reign of Napoleon III, now offers a white-gold Louis Cartier pen ($105,000) whose cap is pavéed with 823 full-cut cabochon diamonds with a total weight of more than 15.5 carats. And it's not just jewelers who treat fountain pens like small treasures. David Oscarson's limited-edition Henrik Wigstrom Trophy fountain pen ($4,200), an homage to Carl Fabergé, is handcrafted of sterling silver with a guilloche pattern, then painted with enamel, which is fired into glass.

Pioneer pen manufacturers such as Waterman, Parker, Sheaffer, Cross, and Montblanc still dominate the market, but they now compete with scores of others, including such Italian companies as Montegrappa, Visconti, Omas, and Aurora; avant-garde brands like Lamy, Pilot, and Jorg Hysek; as well as jewelers such as Cartier, Dunhill, and Dupont.

"The preference among collectors is for fountain pens that are numbered, have gold nibs, and are bottle-filled," explains Warren Brown, co-owner of Arthur Brown & Bro., a top Manhattan retailer. Among the most coveted examples are those from the Namiki Emperor collection (about $6,500), which are extremely limited in production. The pens' traditional Japanese design, hand-painted in gold and lacquer, takes at least three months to execute.

"One of our hottest pens this year is the Namiki King Cobra," says Jay Chin, co-owner of Joon, the largest independent fountain pen retailer in Manhattan. "There are only seven hundred of them in the entire world. We know that they will not only sell out but that they will triple in value."

Chin's appraisal is no exaggeration, and the keenest collectors are prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the rarest Namiki creations. Last December a new world record was set when a superb Dunhill-Namiki Giant Dragon fountain pen by Shogo from the twenties went for $265,000.

"Fine examples like the Giant Dragon are rarely seen, and that is why they are so sought-after," says Alexander Crum Ewing, head of the collectors' department at the prestigious Bonhams auction house in London. "Despite the record price, this pen is still quite inexpensive compared with fine art or other twentieth-century objets. Collectors now have a better idea of what constitutes a rare fountain pen, which has led to a steady increase in prices."

This spring, ten Montblanc limited-edition fountain pens were auctioned for the first time at Christie's in New York City. One of those was part of the Montblanc Meisterstück Helmut Newton Anniversary Special, which included a pen engraved with the fashion photographer's signature, a white-gold timepiece, and a signed print by Newton. The set—one of a limited edition of 75 produced only two years ago—fetched $35,000, nearly double the original sale price of $20,000.

Montblanc's Limited Writers' Edition pens have also proved to be excellent investments for collectors. Honoring such authors as Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and Alexandre Dumas, each series runs about 15,000 to 30,000 pens.

"In 1992, when the Writers' Edition first came out, I purchased ten Hemingway limited-edition pens for an average of $375 to $400 apiece," pen aficionado Steve Magnus recalls. "Last year I sold eight of them for an average of $2,400 each." He has a collection of 360 fountain pens—200 of which are limited editions—housed in a glass display case.

"For me, these are works of art," Magnus says. "I love coming home at night and taking them out of their cases and touching them. It's no different than collecting other types of art."

Other collectors seek pens with historical significance. Aaron Edelman, a senior vice president at Salomon, Smith Barney, owns an Eversharp pen once used by John F. Kennedy for signing important documents. "It is one of the two hundred pens that were commissioned for presidential signatures," he explains. "It was removed from the Oval Office at the time of Kennedy's death and has been authenticated. It's one of the most valuable pens that I own."

Krone offers a line of pens that honor historical figures such as Sir Edmund Hillary ($1,400), who was on the first ascent of Mount Everest, and aviator Charles Lindbergh. The Lindbergh limited-edition ($25,000) has a platinum barrel in the same brushed-swirl pattern as The Spirit of Saint Louis, while the cap is ornamented with a piece of the plane's motor. Similarly, Stipula's limited-edition Laurus gold fountain pen ($2,500)—its shaft decorated with a delicate frieze of racing horses and a sculpted laurel wreath near the nib—evokes the glories of the ancient world.

But most collectors love their pens simply for their beauty. "When picking out a fountain pen to take to the office, I often try to match it with what I am going to wear that day," says New York banker Terence Todman. "It's no different than the way I would choose my cuff links."

Over the years, the mystique of the fountain pen has remained as indelible as the traditional blue-black ink. "Signing with a fountain pen is a totally different experience from writing with anything else," says Brown. "It makes a statement."

Adds Todman, "Writing with a fountain pen is a very addictive thing. In fact, it's a contagious passion. I often give them as gifts, and when I do, my friends say that I have opened up a whole new world for them."

A Written History

Ca. 900 The caliph Al-Muizz commissions a gold pen with an ink reservoir.

1884 When a faulty pen causes Lewis Edson Waterman to ruin and thus lose an insurance contract, he devises a fountain pen with an airtight chamber to eliminate clogging and leaks. Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen soon becomes a household name.

1894 George Safford Parker patents the Lucky Curve, allowing an almost perfect flow of ink from the barrel to the nib. The pen is later used by Puccini to compose La Bohème, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and by George Bernard Shaw to pen Pygmalion, the play that inspired My Fair Lady.

1921 Parker launches the daring lobster-red celluloid Duofold for the then exorbitant price of $7. The Big Red goes from selling a million units in 1921 to 25 million in 1924. The French novelist Colette refuses to be separated from her Mandarin-yellow Parker Duofold. General Douglas MacArthur uses his to cosign the document announcing Japan's surrender in the Pacific, ending World War II in 1945.

1939 Waterman's John Vassos creates the 100 Year Pen, guaranteed a century.

1952 Baron Marcel Bich kicks off a major promotional campaign to make the see-through, disposable Bic pen a global brand. Its staggering success will force many fountain pen manufacturers into bankruptcy.

1954 Waterman France (Jif-Waterman) creates the CF (Cartridge Filler), the first fountain pen to be equipped with an ink-filled plastic cartridge. Cartridge pens are still the most popular fountain pens sold today.

1992 Montblanc launches its first limited edition, the Patron of Art series with the Lorenzo de' Medici pen, producing only 4,810 pens (since Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps, is 4,810 meters high). The octagonal Art Deco sterling-silver pen sells out immediately and remains one of the most sought-after collectible pens in the world today.

Buying Pens

International Pen Retailers

MONTBLANC BOUTIQUE, 834 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021; 212-535-6061.

ARTHUR BROWN & BRO., INC., 2 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036; 212-575-5555, 800-772-7367; www.artbrown.com.

FOUNTAIN PEN HOSPITAL, 10 Warren Street, New York, NY 10007; 212-964-0580; 800-253-7367; www.fountainpenhospital.com.

JOON NEW YORK, 782 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10021; 212-935-1007; 800-782-5666; www.joon.com.

PENFRIEND LIMITED, 34 Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, London W1J 0QA; 44-207-499-6337.

POINT PLUME, 21 Rue Quentin Bauchart, 75008 Paris; 33-1-49-52-09-89.


Repair and Restoration

MIRANS PEN SHOP, 2537 Sixth Avenue, East Meadow, NY 11554; 516-826-6084. Repairs most American-made fountain pens as well as vintage pens, ca. 1900 to 1960s. Authorized fountain pen repairer for Parker and Sheaffer pens since 1950.

PENFRIEND LIMITED, 10-13 Newbury Street, London EC1A 7NW; 44-207-606-6542; www.penfriend.co.uk; e-mail: pen.london@binternet.com. Restores most vintage pens, including Waterman and Sheaffer pens. When a gold nib loses its form, they can usually reshape it. If the nib is cracked, they can solder it with gold.


Buying On-line

Try visiting www.penbid.com for excellent fountain pen auctions.


Auctions

BONHAMS: Located in London, Bonhams is the leading pen specialist auctioneer in the world. 44-207-393-3900; www.bonhams.com/pens; e-mail: a.crumewing@bonhams.com.


Associations

Pen Collectors of America, Box 447, Fort Madison, IA 52627; e-mail: info@pencollectors.com.