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Caveat Emptor: In an Auction, You Get What You Pay For

(This page published October 1, 2022)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]

If you’re one of the people who find it impossible to get to a pen show, where you can handle potential purchases and check them out to be sure of what you’re getting, you might turn to eBay or some other similar auction site on the Web. You really can find some great bargains that way, but CAVEAT EMPTOR! (Let the buyer beware! ) Unless you are knowledgeable enough — and careful enough — to be sure of what you’re getting, you can get stung. It’s all too easy to buy what looks like a silk purse but turns out to be a sow’s ear. Using examples taken from auctions that were current as this article was being written, I explain some of the things to look for and some of the ways to look for them.

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Duofold Dilemma

Everybody knows about the Parker Duofold, and most collectors want one. Or two. Or a dozen. All different, of course. Here’s an intriguing one from eBay, and so far, at least, it appears that you might get it at a bargain price:

eBay auction heading

All in all, the accompanying pictures show a pretty nice pen. It’s clean, and the nib looks surprisingly good. And that Lime Green color is interesting, too. The barrel shows a little discoloration, but not very much, and you’ve never seen a Duofold in this color before. Maybe, just maybe… A little research turns up an interesting fact, however. It turns out that Parker is not known to have made the Duofold in this color. This is a Parker Pastel, in the larger of the line’s two sizes, and the color isn’t “Lime Green.” It’s Apple Green Moire. That said, this is an exciting pen in its own right, and — Duofold or not — it is very much worthy of your attention. Also from the auction, here is a magnified view of the moiré pattern in the material of the cap and barrel.

Moiré pattern

You can find a Duofold another time. Put a snipe on this pen while you can. (If you’re not familiar with sniping, read Dumb eBay Tricks for Smart Bidders, by Don Fluckinger.)

Aye Aye, Sir!

Next, let’s say that someone in your family (maybe you) has served, or is serving, in the U.S. Navy. You’ve read the profile of the Morrison Patriot on this site, and now you want to get a Navy Patriot for your pen collection. To remind you of what you’re looking for, here’s the Navy Patriot from that profile article:

Fountain pen

Now you go looking on the Bay. You decide to look at this auction.

eBay auction heading

You can learn a lot about an auction pen by looking carefully at the pictures and comparing what they tell you with what the seller says. The seller doesn’t really say anything about the pen’s condition, but you can see immediately that the pen’s clip and cap band are badly brassed. For a writer, that might be all right, but not for a collection piece. This one won’t do. Moving on, you find another auction.

eBay auction heading

Going through the photos, you see that the furniture doesn’t appear brassed. There’s a fine gold nib, and you can see what looks like good tipping material on both tines. The auction description says the clip is bent, but you’ve seen enough pictures elsewhere to know that although it’s “leaning” to one side, it could well have been made that way. (Looking back at the example above, you see that that pen’s clip also leans.) The filler might not be working, but for a collection piece, that’s not important; and you can always have it restored later if you decide to write with the pen. Overall, this pen looks good for a collection. If anything, the seller might have under-graded it. The price is the only question, but the auction says you can make an offer. I think I’d offer $175 and see what happens.

Is It, or Isn’t It?

Thinking about the “Duofold” above, here’s another hypothetical case. Let’s suppose that you’ve decided you want a Wearever Zenith fountain pen because you’re a history nerd and you like the fact that the Zenith was the first injection-molded pen made in the U.S.A. We’ll start by looking at a photo of a nearly perfect green Wearever Zenith.

Fountain pen

If you do some research at various Internet reference sites, you will learn that the Zenith came in four plain colors: Coachman’s Green, Maroon, Navy Blue, and Black. So far, so good. You can also see, from the photo above, that the Zenith is a lever-filler. Now you go shopping on eBay, and you find a pen that looks good to you. But wait a minute. Are you looking at a Zenith like the one shown in the screen shot below?

eBay auction heading

The color of that pen is striated blue, silver, and black, not a single plain color; and the pen is not a lever-filler, it’s a button-filler. Despite what the text in the auction says, the pen being offered is not a Zenith. It’s a Pacemaker, a model that was introduced a few years before the Zenith. The Pacemaker is made of celluloid; it’s not injection-molded polystyrene like the Zenith. It’s a good-looking pen, well worth collecting in its own right, but it’s not the historic pen you’re looking for.

So you move on. Here’s another pen that sounds good, although the photography could certainly be better.

eBay auction heading

Near mint, according to the headline. But where’s the cap band? There’s some white stuff making a couple of lines along the edges of the groove where the band should be; this pen isn’t anything like near mint. The description admits that there should be a cap band but tries to excuse the absence of one by saying:


I'm sorry, Dear Seller, but it doesn’t matter whether there were some other Wearever models without cap bands. All Zeniths left the factory with cap bands.

Then there’s this:


The word “restored” means different things to different people. To knowledgeable collectors, it means ”returned to a condition as close to new as possible, with all the right parts and with nothing added that shouldn’t be there.” Talc is good, assuming that it was applied to the sac, but carnauba wax is not good. When you buy a waxed pen, you are buying a problem down the line. Waxing is now universally discouraged by restoration and preservation experts in light of findings post 2010 concerning the longevity, the tendency to yellow over time, and the difficulty of removing even the finest “museum grade” waxes such as Renaissance Wax. That white stuff marking the edges of the cap-band groove might be talc, sealed in by the wax…

Let’s move on.

Another thing that you will learn on at least one reference site I’ve seen is that the Zenith had a 14K gold nib. The three I’ve shown you so far (including the example pen at the top) do indeed have gold nibs. But you might run across a Zenith with a nib that doesn’t say 14KT, or even 14K, on it. The photo below shows a nib that says DUREX TIPPED BROAD USA. Oh, cool, you really like broad nibs.

Zenith nib

But what’s really going on here? If it doesn’t say it’s gold, is it? No. In this instance, it’s gold-plated steel. But that article you found on the Zenith says the Zenith had a gold nib. That article’s author is mistaken. The Zenithwas introduced in 1944, during World War II. During the war, steel was on the list of critical war resources in the U.S., and David Kahn, Inc., which made Wearever pens, was one of the companies that switched to gold nibs for its top-line pens because gold wasn’t on the list. Prevented by wartime restrictions from putting in a whole new manufacturing line for gold nibs, Kahn bought unbranded gold nibs from a company that was alreaday making them. As soon as restrictions on steel were lifted after the war, Kahn switched back to steel nibs. All that a steel nib means is that the pen was made after the end of World War II.

Is It in Good Shape? (Literally!)

If you’re just cruising for an inexpensive pen, maybe as a writer so you can leave your Waterman Ripple No 7 Black at home, here‘s one that might fit the bill. Aikin Lambert made decent pens, especially the nibs. (That’s why Waterman bought the company in 1915.) This pen’s nib is a little misaligned, but it has good tipping on both tines, and realigning the nib and feed shouldn’t be too difficult. The furniture appears to have been chromed, and it’s not too bad.

eBay auction heading

By the time this pen was made, Waterman was using the Aikin Lambert name as a sub-brand, with a consequent minor reduction in overall quality. The seller notes, “Shows normal wear. Tape residue. End of barrel below lever seems to curve. Please see pictures and feel free to ask questions” Tape residue isn’t a problem, but what is this “curve” thing? Take the seller’s advice. Look at the pictures. Here’s the very next picture from the auction:

Pregmant barrel

What you see above is the result of a little too much warmth and a pressure-bar spring that is perhaps a little stiffer than it needs to be. As the barrel got warm, possibly by sitting on a table in the sun after its owner wrote a letter, the pressure bar spring pushed on it from the inside with enough force to distort the celluloid where I’ve added the red arrow. This phenomenon is called “pregnancy,” and it also happens around the lever slot when thre C-ring is too springy. It’s ugly, but it doesn’t affect the usability of this particular pen so long as you don’t try to post the cap. As a cheap writer, this pregnant pen could work out very well. Think about it: nobody’d want to steal it…

What Else Does It Say?

There are some phrases that you will see time and time again; you should know what they really mean. Here are a few:

I don’t know anything about pens.
I don’t ever trust this one. Sellers who do know something about pens will use this, most often to dispose of a junker. Look at the pictures.
Sold as is.
This means you need to look as carefully as you can at the pictures. If there are parts of the pen that aren’t shown, especially the nib, watch out! There’s probably a reason for the omission.
Probably resacked, but was it done right? (For example, too often the diaphragm in a Vacumatic-filling pen was not cut to the proper length, and I’ve bought “restored” pens that had new sacs that weren’t cemented in place.) Maybe cleaned, at least on the outside. Assume that the pen will need restoration when it arrives.
Ready to write.
The seller might have dipped it and made some marks on paper that looked good enough to get by. Doesn’t mean the nib is actually any good. There might be no tipping material left, if there ever was any. Look at the pictures! Remember the first Morrison Patriot you looked at above? Here’s its nib.
Patriot nib

If you magnify this image, you can see that there’s no tipping material on either tine. You wouldn’t have liked it, not even a little bit.

14K gold nib.
Look at the pictures. Does the nib say 14K or 14KT, or does it say 14KT GOLD like the one in the photo here? You’ll see this on cheap pens that were made in the late 19th or early 20th century. It’s probably a lie. Like the nib in the photo, it will have the word PLATE down inside the section, where you can’t see it.
Zenith nib
No returns accepted.
Not necessarily true. If you buy an item on eBay and find that it is not as advertised, it does not matter whether the seller takes returns or not. Allowing a situation like this to go unchallenged hurts everyone that uses services such as eBay. Unless you’ve altered the item so that it is no longer as received, you can (and should) file a dispute. If you can provide clear proof that the item was not truthfully described, eBay will rule in your favor. If you’ve altered the item, however, you are most likely stuck with it.
Look at the pictures.
Look at the pictures. Really look at the pictures.

In Conclusion

It's a good idea to assume that any pen you buy on an auction site will need some amount of work, and you should figure that into the cost of buying that particular pen. If you can do the work yourself, great! If not, you might find that the cost of the work will have left you with a pen that is poor value for your money.

If you are risk averse, this article and others like it might have convinced you that auction sites such as eBay aren’t for you. There is a solution: there are several reputable vintage pen dealers online who stand behind the pens they sell. You might pay more than you would pay in an auction, but you do get what you pay for.

The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.

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