In a 1973 interview, French literary critic/semiotician/essayist Roland Barthes asserted, "In the end I always come back to fountain pens. The important thing is that they can ensure the graceful handwriting I care so much about." Barthes went on to confess his obsession with collecting such pens. "I have too many fountain pens," he admitted, "and I don't know what to do with them. Yet, as soon as I see one, I can never resist buying it."
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Neither, apparently, can a multitude of other similarly smitten fountain-pen aficionados, many of whom will descend on Fort Lauderdale this weekend for the ninth-annual South Florida International Pen & Watch Show. According to show organizer and local pen enthusiast Craig Bozorth, nearly 120 exhibitors from all over the globe will display a vast variety of classic and recent limited-edition pens. Conway Stewart, pen provider to Britain's royal family and prime minister, will feature several limited-edition, 18-carat gold pens that command $18,000 apiece. Less pricey items include vintage inkwells, mechanical pencils, and advertising posters (oh, lots of watches too).
"One dealer from the West Coast of Florida asked me, 'Is it OK if I bring a huge floor-model Parker 51 display case?'" Bozorth recalls with a chuckle. Ah, the Parker 51. Considered by experts to be the finest pen ever made, it was designed by Hungarian artist and Bauhaus guru Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, with its numerous editions selling close to 42 million units between its 1941 introduction and 1972. Hawked by its manufacturer as the "pen from another planet," the Parker 51's aerodynamic shape indeed conjures the image of a rocket ship. In his 1997 book The Fountain Pen: A Collector's Companion, Alexander Crum Ewing contends that the Parker 51 "was the first fully reliable pen that wrote first time, did not leak, and whose ink dried quickly. Its design was enormously influential." Public officials often wielded one: British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery clutched a Parker 51 while signing the 1945 treaty cementing Germany's surrender at the end of World War II.
Pen-collecting -- mostly by men age 50 and older -- took off in the late 1980s, Bozorth explains, then mushroomed in the 1990s with the appearance of incredibly ornate limited-edition pens such as Montblanc's Lorenzo de Medici sterling overlay model, offered for $1200 a decade ago and now fetching $7000.
The Internet, adds Bozorth, has rocked the pen-collecting universe, "knocking everything on its ear by making things available that heretofore no one had been aware of." People cleaning out their attics have unwittingly discovered gold when auctioning vintage pens on-line: "Someone looks at a good photo of a pen with an opening bid of $5 and thinks, 'Oh my god, that's a Parker Vacuumatic with a Vacuumatic band! I'll bid $400.' Another guy sees it and says, 'I'll bid $500.' It then goes for $900, and the original seller is like 'Whoa!'"