Victory at the Swann Auction

World War II (?) – era poster for Swan Pens

I attended an outcry auction of fine and vintage pens at The Swann Galleries in New York City, mid-September 2012, an irregular event in the world of pens.  Among the attendees was Paul Erano, who assigned me to write about the auction for the PENant publication of the Pen Collectors of America.  An edited, call-’em-like-you-see ’em version of the same should appear in print with the next issue, Winter 2013(?).   That article will include some terrific i-photos of the pens and the auction exhibitions taken by my friend Michael D. Gately, who did yeoman’s work as a photographer while I indulged my mania.

For posterity and vanity, I’m including my original, prose-ier version below, with two of my own photos. 

I wanted to write a “real” article about my attendance at the exhibition and auction of Swann Galleries’ sale #2285 of Fine and Vintage Writing Instruments, which took place on Thursday, September 13, 2012 in New York City.

I wanted to write something factual about the hard work involved to assemble and display the 400 lots of modern and vintage pens offered, including one of the largest extant, complete collections of Chilton pens.  I could have written about my admiration of surprisingly working-class 1930’s-era Montblanc Rouge et Noirs; the stunning Aurora retractable Asterope and white-celluloid Etiopia from about the same time, all pens I fascinatingly held and likely might never hold again.  I could have discussed how much I learned about vintage Pelikans, Parkers, Watermans and pre-World War II maki-e from the PENguin’s Rick Propas and Swann’s Marco Tomaschett.

A real article would marvel at auctioneer Nicholas Lowry’s deft juggling of live bids, phone bids, order bids and online bids via  It would describe how the auction seamlessly used Swann’s admin assistants and even the mail room guys, who blithely proxied on lots that must have been several times their likely salary.  A whole article alone could profile the 40 in-person attendees, a competitive, entertaining fraternity of enthusiasts, collectors, wheelers and dealers, some of whom I later got to know at a post-auction dinner in a Manhattan theater-district trattoria.

I wanted to observe, remain aloof, be a critic.  But no matter how many pages of notes, how many stuttering, stopping and starting drafts I’ve written, this isn’t that article.  All because on the inevitable whim, I registered for the auction and held in my hand, for the better part of the auction’s three hours, a blue and white paddle, #114.

And I bid on something.  And I won!

Victory started the day before, when I arrived for two sessions of exhibition hours.  The Swann Galleries are located in an airy loft on the sixth floor of a Flatiron office building.  I spent hours poring over two large glass cases that held the lots.  For someone accustomed to pens in precious-looking, flattering pen shop displays, the intimidatingly crowded side-by-side I found at Swann seemed to assume I should know something about what I was looking at.

However, on display were more history, variety and unfamiliarity than I had ever seen.  Marco and Rick were patient as I asked to see one pen after another, each placed on a black velvet cushion for in-hand review.  I concentrated on the sixty lots of modern and limited edition pens: I reacquainted myself with a Rotring “1928,” a limited edition made by Visconti, that I had passed up at the time of its release in 2003.  There was also a 1995 banana-yellow Wahl-Eversharp in a taxi motif that would sell astronomically, rumored because it came boxed with a tiny model taxi.

Victory for me was contained within this group of pens, though I didn’t yet know it.  I noticed the Pelikan M200 demonstrator first because it was simply one of the few pens in the auction I could realistically afford. It was also familiar to me, as my collection, so far not concentrating on Pelikans, does include a current-generation Tradition M200 that I use heavily.  It appealed to me also because, aside from a preference for fine tipping, I have accumulated a working collection of demonstrators over the years.

In the evening, I attended a gallery reception hosted by Rick Propas for the Big Apple Pen Club, which drew out a small but intense group of members, associates and friends for finger sandwiches and white wine.  With Joshua Lax, a fellow BAPC member, we went from case to case, looking at pens, sharing what we knew about each.  Josh was thrilled at the variety of preserved celluloid in the collection of Chiltons.  All the early Montblancs were interesting as they are rarely seen together in such numbers and served as a reminder that the the brand wasn’t always the luxe conglomerate it is today.  Close up, we loved the steampunk brass snap of the Asterope’s nib cover, and the subtle but unfaded Fascist Eagle on the Etiopia.

The little bird in question

Josh asked if there were any pens I was looking at with an acquisitive interest.  I showed him the Pelikan.  He noted the dome cap’s archaic but functional esthetic that’s no longer used by Pelikan – the dome mechanically secures the replaceable clip with a visibly threaded reinforcement.  He also noticed “Made in West Germany” etched into the cap band, which dated the pen to the early 1980’s.

Josh couldn’t have been a better salesman, and my hope of Victory was cemented.  The little bird wasn’t an intrinsically valuable pen relative to many other, and it may not be all that rare at the moment.  But it is interesting, and therefore became worth something to me.

From the next day, the auction itself, I have kept an audio transcription.  Several times in the weeks since, I’ve cued it up to 29:05, at which moment I hear the gavel fall after brisk bidding on a gold-capped Pasha de Cartier that quickly climbed, like the other 99% of the lots, into a stratosphere well out of sight for me.  My lot of interest was considerably humbler, and I can hear myself on tape fumbling for the paddle.  The auctioneer briefly described what I was now considering my Pelikan, and opened bidding at $50.  I bid $60, anxiously.  There was competition from behind me at $70.  I hesitated a moment, as I was already brushing my limit, but bid $80 anyway.  I waited the proverbial eternity.  Even listening now to the recording makes time slow for me.  The auctioneer searched the room, asking for $90.  He looked at the phone bank next to him and a second bank at the rear of the room, asking for $90.  He glanced toward the young kid slouched at a laptop who monitored online bids, asked once more for $90.

Sold for $80 with another clap of the gavel that still gives me goose bumps.  After the buyers’ premium of 20%, came to a grand total of $96.  The recording reads 29:35 – completed in thirty seconds that felt like multiples of that time.

Victory was a charge through me.  I’ve won and lost pens on EBay throughout the years I’ve been collecting.  Winning at Swann felt nothing like that.  Obviously, an EBay auction counting down at my office cubicle doesn’t get me congratulatory whispers, glances back or pats on the shoulder from colleagues.  More significantly, however, an EBay auction is also not the accumulation of the previous twenty-four hours’ experience.  It’s not the communal and human experience of talking through decades of expertise; it’s not sitting in a room with other collectors who were as pleased to meet me as I was to meet them.

The catalogue notes a second sale scheduled for the spring of 2013.  I’ll be there.

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