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May 2005: Five Steps to Sumgai-dom

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • All right, I’ll put the disclaimer up top: I don’t buy into the “legend of Sumgai,” as perpetrated in pen hobbyist discussions at pen shows or at online forums.

For the uninitiated, “Sumgai” is an Asian-sounding mangling of the words “some guy,” who is the person collectors often hear about when inquiring about pens with friends, relatives, antique shop proprietors, or flea market vendors: “Yeah, I had a [Snake Pen/Flighter 51/Hundred Year Pen/whatever] here earlier but I [sold/gave] it to some guy who was just here.”

There are sharp pen collectors out there whose hard work leads them to cheap or free pens, jaw-dropping finds that set Internet bulletin boards afire with envious half-flames in response to their descriptions. Extra Fine Points

I don’t buy into this mysterious phenomenon, just like I didn’t buy into the Red Sox’s supposed “Curse of the Bambino.” (We didn’t need to blame the heavenly hand of Babe Ruth when poor game management caused most of the near-misses. Like, why didn’t Don Baylor start the “Buckner” game in 1986? That wasn’t Babe’s doing. Neither did he make Grady Little leave Pedro Martinez in during game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to see the conclusion of his 7th inning meltdown.)

There’s no mystery as to why some guy nabbed the great pen find before me — part of the time, it’s 100% my fault. Too late, too slow, and not proactive enough in hunting down the pen. The early bird got the worm. I lost out.

The other part of the time, especially at antique shops, I’m convinced the tale-tellers are flat-out lying or exaggerating (e.g., representing a pen seen six years ago as “last week”) so you’ll come back to the shop again and become a regular. You can spot these instances easily when they say things along the lines of “Pens? Yeah, pens … let me see … you know we just had a couple… .” Bingo. Liars.

But I do believe there are sharp pen collectors out there whose hard work leads them to cheap or free pens, jaw-dropping finds that set Internet bulletin boards afire with envious half-flames in response to their descriptions. We see it, even in this day and age when eBay, price guides, and Antiques Roadshow have heightened the general public’s awareness of the value of pens.

And we can learn lessons from such hardworking collectors. One, Bryan Stone of Keene, NH, has made the following scores:

Some of Bryan Stone's Sumgai finds

Keep in mind, these are 2005-era scores. I’m sure the Paul Eranos and Abe Schwartzes of the world will roar laughing at the above list, thinking about how, back in 1982, they separated a $10,000 Parker Snake pen from a flea market dealer for $8.50 and a Subway footlong steak and cheese. Those days are over. Many collectors have just written off the antique-store and flea-market scene, leaving it to more persistent people like Stone who do occasionally come up with good pens.

Stone, an allergist by day and (mostly) vintage pen collector the rest of the time, enjoys the thrill of the hunt. He doesn’t buy much online, including on eBay. When he does shop on eBay, he doesn’t use sniping software, as he feels that’s a dirty trick — which proves, for those who believe in the myth of Sumgai, that this guy is at least a principled scoundrel.

Everyone has their own yardstick to distinguish garden-variety pen buys from a great find. Personally, I use one of two standards: either “I paid less than $20,” or “I can sell it on eBay for 8 to 10 times the buying price.” How does Stone define a Sumgai find?

“Any time I can tell people ‘I got a pen, I paid this amount of money for it,’ and they give me a really disgusting look and say ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” he says with a wink. The more “incredibly contorted” the facial expressions, the better the find, he adds.

How does a pen collector elevate his or her game to the level of Stone’s? He offers the following tips:

  1. Work the local shops. Once a week to once a month, Stone hits a series of his favorite shops. The clerks all know his name, face, and collecting habits, and they remember when pens come in that he’s going to come around looking for them soon. Those of us who make one-time or yearly visits to shops haven’t even begun to tap into the potential of the local antique pen pool.

  2. Network. In Stone’s case, he lets family, friends, patients, and everyone else know he’s a pen collector. His parents, who live in a Florida retirement community, tell their friends, who often are getting rid of possessions as they move out of houses and into condominiums. They flat-out give him pens.

  3. Go public. These are a couple of ideas Stone has heard about and hasn’t yet tried himself, but to his trained ears they sound interesting and worth a try: A hardware store owner posts a sign saying “Wanted: Old Pens” and in a couple of months accumulates hundreds as they walk in the door. A collector sets up a small glass-case display of fountain pens at a local library and “advertises” that it’s his, and he’s looking for pens. The point? Is there some way you can “think outside the box” and tap into the great forgotten pool of old unwanted pens floating around in your town?

  4. Read the price guides. If you don’t know what a pen’s worth, Stone says, you won’t know when a pen-ignorant dealer is overpricing a piece when he’s asking $50 — or when that’s a big-time steal.

  5. Converse with other collectors. Being some guy out in the wilderness isn’t rewarding whatsoever. Bragging about your finds in pen club meetings (or in Stone’s case, on the Pentrace bulletin boards) is. Seek out positive feedback, and the hunt becomes more thrilling — as your legend grows.

And enjoy the thrill of chasing pens, Stone says, cruising the local antiques landscape instead of picking the low-hanging fruit on eBay and spending too much.

“One of the things that I think is fun about this is going into the antique shops, asking if you have any old pens, and going out to the next shop,” Stone says.

Anyone who would argue with that would be messing with success.

cover Further Reading: Flea Market America, by Cree McCree

Your pen collection getting too big? Need to clear out a room to make space for your ever expanding pen collection? Unload some of your stash in a weekend at the local flea market. Check out this definitive guide to “flea enterprise,” and get cracking at it today.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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