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October 2005: Set Collector Genetically, Type Collector by Necessity

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Early in my pen-collecting days I read Paul Erano’s guide to collecting and restoring fountain pens. This would have been back in the days it was still a paperback. He wrote something about how collectors must focus their collections, otherwise they’ll end up like he did at one point: Cigar boxes full of pens, accumulating with no rhyme, reason, and ultimately, deriving less fun out of the enterprise.

Those were different times, when Erano was accumulating. A collector could assemble a cigar box full of pens for less than $100. Today, $100 gets you a pen used to stir lead paint in a previous life, right before it got run over by a truck.

You can’t be both a set collector and a type collector at the same time. We’re genetically predisposed to being one or the other. Extra Fine Points

My first pen show, I went with a pocket full of cash and bought what my eye thought looked interesting. One by one, I laundered each on eBay: A beautiful Conklin crescent with an awesome flex nib that turned out to be utterly useless in my left-handed writing grip. A Sheaffer with solid gold furniture and a Vac-filler that was not fully functional. And a Skyline that…well, I quickly bored of Skylines.

Now, with Erano’s principle in mind — and a limited budget — I deliberately choose which pens I purchase with collection focus in mind.

But what am I, a set collector or a type collector?

Not much of a collection, compared to a lot of people I know. But the point is, it’s a peculiar mix of type collecting and set collecting, completely opposite of Richard. He’s a type collector so militant that once he finds a slight upgrade to a pen in his collection — and the way his brain works, slight can mean such a fine upgrade that to 99% of us, it wouldn’t be an upgrade even if we could see the difference between the two pens — the old one is gone in two seconds.

Which brings us to the fact that I’m at heart a set collector. You can’t be both a set collector and a type collector at the same time. I think we’re genetically predisposed to being one or the other.

Pens make me crazy, though, because it’s not like the U.S. mint: Coin collectors know exactly what dates and mint marks comprise a set. Baseball card collectors know what a set is when it’s completed, you collect card numbers 1 through 576 or whatever the last number is, and you’re done.

And don’t give me static about errors and variations. Yes, some coin collectors don’t feel they have a full collection of Wheat Cents until they have that 1955 double die and all the other weird peculiarities, and some baseball card collectors feel they need all the white-letter variations or the error cards with the bad stats that got corrected in later print runs. But that’s advanced stuff that gets invented by bored collectors after they complete a set.

In pens, though, you never really are done. There’s no definitive book that lays it all out and says “you’ve completed the set!” That’s why at pen shows, people argue among themselves about what’s an actual different color versus a sun-faded common hue, and why shady dealers can wonder aloud if their Franken-pens are actually rare variations or prototypes and a few gullible customers might believe it.

That, and the other part is that pens are pretty expensive for the average collector. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a bunch of extra $100 bills lying around to spend on pens. I wish I did, of course. I fantasize about a tea tin full of hundreds I saved up. Grab a fistful on the way out the door to the pen show and I’m all set.

But that’s not reality. So I am stuck with this halfway-between type and set collection. Or, as I prefer to see it, the seeds of many different sets that will be completed before I pass on to the great 1930s stationery store in the sky.

How do I know I’m genetically predisposed to the set side of collecting? It runs in the family. I’ll leave you with this anecdote: Last week, my ever-busy brother Jim — a successful businessman steeped in his city’s politics, real estate, and a full-time-plus job — recently picked up a hobby. He’s collecting very specialized china an interior designer had recommended he acquire to complete his dining room decor.

Apparently, it’s grown way beyond decor. He’s building multiple sets, some of which have multiple designs within the set. And he’s doing it on eBay — never having used the site before.

While he’s normally cool, calm, and collected, he called me up on his cell phone to ask me — the family eBay expert — what it takes to win these confounded auctions. It turns out that some ignorant cuss had beaten him out on a pair of dessert plates. He’d won a pair, and a collector from down south sniped him on the other pair.

“What was he thinking?” Jim yelled at me, as if I were the problem. “They’re worthless to both of us now! Augggh! You gotta have four, that’s how [the manufacturer] made them! Why does eBay even let morons like this on to their site and bid?”

Yup, I’m a set collector. Runs in the family.

cover Further Reading: Fountain Pens : Past and Present (revised edition), by Paul Erano

Thinking about Paul Erano and the book I refer to most often, I can’t help thinking that there’s just no better book for beginning collectors — and it’s not bad for those of us who think we’ve made it, either.

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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