The Pinnacle of Pens: Author Barry Gabay on Writing in Style and the Montblanc 149

September 29th, 2010

As a writer and editor at “Pen World” magazine for more than 10 years, Barry Gabay has tested and reviewed countless collectible writing instruments. In this interview, he offers an in-depth look at Montblanc, which is the cornerstone of his personal collection of more than 1,000 mostly prewar American pens and postwar Montblanc fountain pens. Gabay details the history of the company, explains its numbering system, and describes the technology inside these pens. Gabay can be reached via “Pen World.”

In 1908, three guys in Hamburg, Germany, founded what would become Montblanc. In the beginning it was known as the Simplo Filler Pen Company—“filler” because their pen featured a filling mechanism that set it apart from desk-dip pens, which was what most of the world used at that time. It wasn’t until 1910 that the firm released a pen with the Montblanc name on it—in 1924, Montblanc was added to the company’s name.

Mont Blanc, of course, is a mountain in France, on the French-Italian border. But the French have always been considered chic in Europe, so it made sense for a German pen company to name one of its models, and eventually its company, after something French. When it came to marketing, Montblanc’s Claus Voss was every bit as smart as George Parker and Walter Sheaffer, the two geniuses of North American pen manufacturing. If calling a German pen by a French name would help it sell better, then Voss was certainly willing to do it.

According to Voss’ daughter’s memoir, her uncle suggested Montblanc at a card game. The company had moved from a pen with a plain red cap, to a red star on the cap top, to a white star on the cap top. The uncle supposedly said to his brother-in-law, “You should call your pens Montblanc because they’re big and black on the bottom and white on top like Mont Blanc.” Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in Europe, and it’s perpetually snowcapped. This pen would be the pinnacle of quality.

The advertising with the mountain in the background occurred pretty early with these pens. Montblanc also began inscribing “4810” on the nibs, which is the patented logo of the company, because the mountain is 4,810 meters tall. I think calling that pen Montblanc worked well for its generation and continues to work well, as it completely encapsulates what the product represents.

Collectors Weekly: What was the company’s first pen model?

Gabay: The first Montblanc catalog in 1909 featured three different types of pens with two filling mechanisms—a round-capped eyedropper, a round-capped safety pen, and a flat-capped safety pen. An eyedropper pen is simply a pen that has an empty tube as the barrel, and it’s filled with a little medicine dropper. The eyedropper is immersed in ink, which is then dripped into the barrel of the pen. The section and nibs are screwed back on or slipped back on to a friction attraction, and the pen writes through capillary attraction. It’s like holding one a finger over one end of a straw with water in it; it doesn’t leak.

Prewar Montblancs are difficult to date because most of the archives were destroyed during World War II.

A safety pen has a very complex retracting nib mechanism. The nib ascends and descends by turning the pen at the bottom, where the nib is attached to a spindle. The pen has a collar around the nib so that when the nib is retracted, the barrel is completely open so you can drop ink into it, as with an eyedropper pen.

When the nib is extended, the collar around the nib closes the end of the barrel so the pen can write without leaking ink. When the nib is retracted for storage, the screw-on cap fits over the end of the barrel so that it’s leak-proof. That’s what the term “safety” really meant.

The three pens in that first catalog came in long and short styles, as well. The company also made pens used by engineers and architects for drawing extremely thin lines. All Simplo pens at that time were black with a red cap, which is why they were called by another French name, Rouge et Noir. The bodies were made of black ebonite, which is a type of hard, vulcanized rubber used by pen manufacturers until the 1920s, when plastic arrived on the scene.

Collectors Weekly: Did Montblanc import its gold nibs from America?

A Montblanc green striated No. 146, from 1949.

A Montblanc green striated No. 146, from 1949.

Gabay: Yes, until about 1914 or so. Lewis Waterman had patented what’s considered the first practical fountain pen in 1874. When Montblanc was incorporated in 1908, the Americans had been making functional fountain pens for about 35 years. We were just better at it. Most of the world was still using the dip pen, the wooden shaft with a steel nib that was dipped in ink.

Americans knew how to make fountain pen nibs, which are quite different from dip pen nibs. Also, fountain pen nibs were made from gold, while dip pen nibs tended to be steel, except for those belonging to very wealthy people who wanted gold-nibbed dip pens.

The founders of Montblanc were trying to create a pen for the domestic market, as German companies had been importing pens from North America and England. Claus Voss knew that World War I was coming and that other countries wouldn’t be trading with Germany anymore, so his nib supply would be cut off. He realized he needed to make nibs, and he hired some jewelers and metallurgists. In 1913 he founded the German-American Gold Pen Co., which sold American nibs in Europe. In 1914 Voss’ company started making its own nibs.

Collectors Weekly: When were the Meisterstück pens introduced?

Gabay: The Meisterstück line, which means masterpiece, coincided with the company’s decision in 1924 to begin calling itself Montblanc. The Meisterstück was its top-of-the-line pen. At that time, the company was making Meisterstücks in several different models, including safeties. Montblanc made Meisterstücks in long and short varieties, and they were numbered after their nib size. After the Meisterstück, Montblanc had a medium-priced pen, and then it had the economy or student-range model.

The Meisterstücks always began with the number 1. The 100s would be the best pens. The 200 pens would rank second in quality, and the 300s third. The filling mechanisms in the ’20s and ’30s were also numbered, and that was the second digit. The number 0 designated a safety pen, 2 meant the pen had a pump filler, and 3 stood for a piston filler. The last digit in the ’20s and ’30s was the size of the nib, which ranged from a tiny 00 up to a number 12. In this way, a pen labeled as a 128—best quality, pump filler, with a number-8 nib—could easily be identified.

Montblanc’s popularity in the ’80s coincided with a decline in the reputation of its products.

There were also button fillers modeled after one of Parker’s great creations—a pen with a simple bladder mechanism. It was available in red and black hard rubber. Montblanc also made lever fillers, which were never very popular in Europe and are now exceedingly rare. I’ve only seen a couple of Montblanc lever fillers in my life.

There was also a pen with a pneumatic filler, which was invented by the Conklin Company in the U.S. It operated on the same principle as the pneumatic drill used for tearing up the streets. Air pressure collapsed the bladder. When the barrel was closed, the air pressure was removed and the bladder would deflate. If it were immersed, it filled with ink.

Thanks to the introduction of celluloid and plastics, the ’20s and ’30s were a period of great experimentation for Montblanc. From that period on, it had more filling mechanisms than any other company. The company sold a button-filler pen, which was very traditional in design. Other models used lever fillers and piston fillers, which later became the primary type of Montblanc pen and were the most popular filling mechanism in Europe. It had pneumatic fillers with a collapsible bladder. Montblanc’s pump fillers were fairly innovative. I’m really surprised nobody else went for them.

Montblanc only patented one filling mechanism—the collapsible telescopic piston. The company patented or trademarked its 4810 pen as well as the white star, but its telescopic piston, which was a modification of a regular piston, is the only filling mechanism Montblanc patented. It virtually doubled the size of the ink capacity within the pen. It’s a brilliant innovation, but in 1959 Montblanc abandoned it and returned to the more traditional piston, probably because of the expense.

Collectors Weekly: Who were Montblanc’s competitors during the ’20s and ’30s?

Gabay: Its two major competitors at the time were Pelikan, the developer of the piston and still a leading German pen manufacturer, and Sonneken, which was a great pen company. Montblanc ended up on top just before the war. As far as innovation is concerned, Pelikan was a more interesting company, but Montblanc had the marketing edge. The company knew how to take an idea, develop it, and make it more appealing to the public.

This Montblanc No. 4 Rouge et Noir from 1920 features an 18k gold snake on the cap.

This Montblanc No. 4 Rouge et Noir from 1920 features an 18k gold snake on the cap.

The Japanese were the great imitators in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. They’d take European and American designs and make them better and less expensive. Montblanc did the same thing in a way in the ’20s and ’30s with American designs. The company ended up on top before World War II because German firms tended to be very conservative at that time. The majority of pens in Europe were black hard rubber. Pelikan really had one design, and Sonneken had only a couple. Montblanc was willing to attempt many designs, and it had numerous filling mechanisms. Once the piston proved its popularity, the company went with that.

Montblanc was also innovative in terms of its advertising. In the U.S., Parker and Sheaffer were on the back page of “National Geographic.” Montblanc advertised widely in magazines, too, but it also had a series of cars with hubcaps painted like the star, the snowcap icon on the top of its pens. Montblanc placed ads in subway stations, on the street, and on billboards.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most collectible Montblanc pens from the prewar era?

Gabay: As a rule of thumb, there are really three things collectors look for: the ornateness of the body, the precision of the mechanism, and size. Many collectors also really like big pens. Today, the most expensive non-precious metal vintage Montblanc pens are the large ones. The beautiful Montblanc Meisterstück—the number 12 safety—was made all through the 1920s. It was a very large pen.

I write for several hours a day. I love using a good pen.

Tiny pens are called babies. Montblanc made nibs from 00 to 12 in the prewar sizes, so you’ll find tiny Montblancs and very large ones. The 00 and 0 babies are very rare too.

In 1924, Sheaffer introduced plastic contents using DuPont plastic, and other companies rapidly followed suit. By the mid-1920s, everybody was making pens with colored plastic. Montblanc introduced orange, blue, and malachite-green fountain pens.

After the size 12s were discontinued in the 1930s, Montblanc began numbering the Meisterstücks as 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40. These are the solid-color and marble-barrel pens with the push-knob fillers and the rounded snowcap on top. They were available in bright colors and are extremely sought after. After the war, Meisterstücks were also manufactured in Denmark, so you see a lot of those, but it’s almost impossible to find a prewar model in North America. Stripe-barrel pens numbered 124, 126, 128, 134, 136, or 138 are quite rare.

Montblanc made a celluloid pen that no other company, with the exception of OMAS in Italy, was able to perfect. It was called the PL or the Platinum, and it was silver, black, and white—the barrels and caps featured silvery black celluloid in an arch pattern. This Platinum is the single rarest European celluloid pen because it was only made in the 1930s. It was available in the 2, 4, 6, and 8 sizes. I wouldn’t even want to speculate on how many exist, but I’d say that it’s probably the most rare Montblanc from the ’30s.

In 30 years of serious pen collecting, I’ve only seen two or three of the Rouge et Noirs in North America. Though rare, they are found in European collections. One of the models that have become very popular recently is the 149, which has been Montblanc’s top-of-the-line pen since the 1950s. Everybody’s crazy about it. Its immediate predecessor, the 139, was made from 1939 to 1952. A 139 looks just like a 149 except it’s flat on the top and bottom instead of rounded. Those 149s from the ’50s are considered rare.

The L 139, such as this example from 1942, was, and still is, the fattest pen in the Montblanc line.

The L 139, such as this example from 1942, was, and still is, the fattest pen in the Montblanc line.

Almost as soon as the 139s began production, the war intervened, so you see war-era 139s without gold nibs, as gold was a strategic metal at that time. Instead, the nibs were made of steel or an alloy. After the war, the 139s were produced until ’52. Those pens, which are the same size as the 149s, are extremely rare.

In fact, the first limited-edition writer series pen that Montblanc made is called the Hemingway, the single most valuable non-precious metal, non-Maki-e modern limited edition model for pens. It looks exactly like a 139 (though its barrel is orange), which is the most-sought-after non-colored Montblanc out there. As with any pen, rarity is what people look for.

One of the ironies of the current market is that a lot of the lower-end, 200 and 300-quality Montblancs’ brightly colored barrels and caps are more desired by collectors than luxury models from the same period. That’s because most of Montblanc’s luxury pens were plain black, whereas collectors gravitate toward the ones in blue, pearl, or black and green.

Collectors Weekly: How did World War II affect the company?

Gabay: Well, Hamburg is the largest port in Germany. In fact, at that time, it was the largest port in Europe after Rotterdam. Allied bombing devastated it. The company survived through most of 1944, but in the winter of that year, the factory was bombed and many of its materials were destroyed. We have very few Montblanc archives from that time because of the bombing. According to Voss’ daughter, it wasn’t until just before the end of the war that her father received any compensation from the German government for damage to his company.

Everyone from Jackson Pollock to John Paul II used the Montblanc 149.

Ironically, the occupation of Hamburg by the Brits was a great thing for Montblanc. When the war ended, the company was producing no more than a few pens a month. But when the British authorities came to talk to all of the businesspeople, they made sure that Montblanc received the raw materials it needed to get back on its feet again, in part because the British occupation forces needed fountain pens.

Montblanc’s whole line was redesigned in 1949. The 132s through 138s were discontinued as the company introduced a whole new line of luxury pens. When the size 8s were dropped, the middle number 4 was introduced as a new rounded model that looked like the 149 you see today. So, in 1949, the product line consisted of the 142, 144, and 146.

At the time, it was unheard of for a European company to produce new lines like that. When you look at French automobiles, French fashion, or even something like Italy’s Olivetti typewriters, European companies didn’t begin introducing new products until the ’50s. It was amazing for Montblanc to produce a new line of pens four years after the war in a devastated city.

The key to its success was its ability to export. Nobody in Germany had any money at that time. It was far more important to sell a pen to the U.K., where Montblanc would be paid in hard currency, rather than in Deutsche Marks or Reichsmarks, which really didn’t have any value. Montblanc was exporting because there simply wasn’t a domestic market. North America took longer—Montblanc did not sell its pens here until the very late ’50s—and the company didn’t export to Asia until the 1960s.

Collectors Weekly: What did Montblanc produce in the ’50s?

Gabay: In the 1950s, Montblanc was making pens in Denmark as well in Germany. The company was producing the 140 series, making beautiful celluloid pens. It was making plain black celluloid, as well as gray stripe, brown stripe, green stripe, and other colors. These are among my favorite Montblancs in my collection.

Montblanc's Red Marble No. 12 Safety Pen was manufactured from 1924 to 1929.

Montblanc’s Red Marble No. 12 Safety Pen was manufactured from 1924 to 1929.

The company was trying a variety of designs, like bringing back the slip cap for the first time since prior to 1930. Montblanc also redesigned its nibs. The traditional nib was like a spear, the point of an arrow, but there’s another nib called the Cobra, which looks like a cobra head, or a heart. The slip cap and Cobra nib are two innovations Montblanc introduced during this period.

Montblanc also began marrying celluloid and metal with metal caps on its pens. The Americans did that in 1941 with the Parker 51, one of the world’s most famous pens. Montblanc began doing it with the 600 series pens. The 600 series was celluloid and metal, with sterling silver, solid gold, or gold-filled caps and barrels—the peak of German pen quality at that time. Pens in the 700 series were all metal, while pens in the 100 series were all celluloid.

Another great change Montblanc developed in the 1950s was a telescoping system in which the first section of the piston collapses over the second section so that it occupies less space. That way, there’s more space for the ink. In 1959, Montblanc abandoned celluloid for injection-mold plastic. Some people see that as the beginning of a decline in quality. Indeed, many collectors don’t collect Montblanc from 1959 and after because that’s when injection plastic was introduced.

Plastic is a different material from celluloid, of course, but Montblancs were still great quality pens at that time. I like both celluloid and plastic, although the celluloid pens are superior.

Collectors Weekly: What were some of Montblanc’s high points in the 1960s?

Gabay: In the 1960s, the 149 really was the only oversized fountain pen out there. Albert Goertz redesigned the entire Montblanc line. He streamlined every Montblanc pen except the 149, which remained the one big pen. People like those. For the most part, though, Goertz made Montblanc pens thinner and plainer.

I’ve seen photographs of Jackson Pollock and John Paul II using the Montblanc 149, and there’s an even more famous photograph of Jack Kennedy taken in 1962 or ’63 with Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of postwar Germany. In the photo, Adenauer needs to sign something, and Kennedy takes from his pocket the greatest German fountain pen, the Montblanc 149, and hands it to the chancellor of West Germany. It was a great political statement, but also a wonderful gesture.

In the ’50s, there were still people, particularly in America, who didn’t want to buy German products. It wasn’t until the early ’60s that the Volkswagen Beetle became popular in this country. Leica cameras didn’t make a comeback until that time. I think Americans bought Montblancs in part because some of that anti-German feeling had disappeared.

This Montblanc No. 256 store display pen, marked “Unverkauflich” (“not for sale”) is also from the collection of Barry Gabay. Photo courtesy of "Pen World."

These Montblancs (a No. 256 is at left; a No. 146 is at right) are store display pens, each marked “Unverkauflich” (“not for sale”). Both are from the collection of Barry Gabay. Photo courtesy of “Pen World.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that the ballpoint was the rage throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The ballpoints were terrible when they first came out in the late 1940s. The ink was horrible. The Reynolds Company was the first to produce them, but when Bic in France made a disposable pen in the ’60s, it became the world’s most popular ballpoint.

As the ballpoint became more accepted, the fountain pen lost some of its cache. People saw it as something old and inferior, at least in North America. Europe never abandoned the fountain pen. It went into Europeans’ pockets along with the ballpoints and mechanical pencils. But in the U.S. and Canada, the fountain pen was virtually abandoned in favor of the ballpoint.

My family and I have lived in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. In all three of those places I found pens in trio sets—fountain pens, ballpoints, and mechanical pencils—from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s at junk shops and antiques shops. You rarely see that in the U.S. The Montblanc 149 became popular here in the ’60s and ’70s, but other fountain pens were, for the most part, neglected.

There was a resurgence of interest in fountain pens in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A lot of companies like Sheaffer and Parker began producing retro designs in the ’80s. Montblancs just continued to sell, thanks to their European craftsmanship and quality.

Collectors Weekly: Why did the company grow so rapidly in the 1980s?

Gabay: When Ronald Reagan was elected in the 1980s, this country was riding a crest of economic prosperity. Conspicuous consumption became acceptable. Rolex, for example, became extremely popular in this country, as did Mercedes and the big Montblanc Diplomat with the snow crown on it. People wanted impressive items that demonstrated their economic prowess.

Many people don’t collect Montblanc from 1959 and after because that’s when injection plastic was introduced.

Ironically, Montblanc’s popularity in the ’80s coincided with a decline in the reputation of its products. I think this happened in part because a lot of people who wanted a prestigious pen didn’t really know how to use a fountain pen. They were accustomed to ballpoints. If you bear down hard with a fountain pen you can ruin it in three or four seconds, and many people wrecked their pens immediately. I’ve heard this from retailers and manufacturers. The pens themselves didn’t change dramatically in the early 1980s.

The company began an enormously popular series of limited-edition pens in 1990 and ’91. Ever since, each year, Montblanc issues a Writers Edition limited edition and a Patron of the Arts limited edition.

The pens Montblanc makes today are still wonderful. My favorite model is the 149. At one time I owned 39 operable ones and several in pieces. I’ve since traded and sold a lot of them. That model has gone through so many changes. To the untrained eye those changes might seem superficial, but somebody who understands the model can look at a Montblanc 149 and identify when it was made.

If you look at a Parker Duofold from the 1920s, you can just about date it by year because of an imprint change, nib change, or redesign of the cap. If you study these 149 pens, you can learn that sort of thing and really understand what you have.

Collectors Weekly: Can you determine the date of a pen through its mechanisms?

Inkbottles designed for traveling were sold with pens such as this No. 1 Rolled Gold Safety, produced from 1920 to 1927.

Inkbottles designed for traveling were sold with pens such as this No. 1 Rolled Gold Safety, produced from 1920 to 1927.

Gabay: Absolutely, but to do it you have to study. You have to spend time looking at catalogs and old documentation. One reason the prewar Montblancs are so difficult to date is because most of the archives were destroyed during World War II.

With Parker, Sheaffer, or Waterman, for example, we can date pens to within a quarter of a year. You could look at the date code of a particular Parker 51 and say the pen was produced in the first quarter of 1942 without question. You could look at a particular Parker Duofold from the 1920s and say it’s from 1926 based on the particular configuration on the cap alone. Some people might find this stuff boring, but for collectors, these are essential details.

By knowing, for example, how the feed changed on the Solitaire series, I’ve been able to help people determine whether their pen is a Montblanc Solitaire from the late 1990s or early 2000s. I really enjoy studying the intricacies of particular models.

Collectors Weekly: When did Montblancs become collectible?

Gabay: In this country, the brightly colored prewar Montblancs didn’t start showing up until the early 1990s. People turn up their noses at plain black Montblancs, but they became popular in the 1990s along with the limited-edition Montblancs. Only in recent years have the plain black Montblancs from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s become collectible. Of course, any prewar Montblanc is popular.

Some people knew about Montblancs, but it wasn’t until the resurgence of interest in fountain pens in the late ’80s that people began taking Montblanc seriously. Most Americans thought of it just as that new chic pen company rather than one of Europe’s oldest and most revered pen manufacturers.

Collectors Weekly: How did you get into collecting pens?

Gabay: I’ve always loved using fountain pens. When I was a school kid in the 1950s and ’60s, we wrote with cartridge pens. Ballpoints weren’t allowed until we got to junior high. On the last day of sixth grade, a lot kids threw their pens in the trashcan. I still have some of them; that was my first dumpster dive. In the early 1970s, when I was going to college, I started picking up fountain pens at antiques stores and old stationery shops. I was getting them for next to nothing because people didn’t want them.

In the 1930s, pens and pencils were sold in sets. This No. 322 push-knob pen in azurite blue is paired with its matching pencil, the No. 23.

In the 1930s, pens and pencils were sold in sets. This No. 322 push-knob pen in azurite blue is paired with its matching pencil, the No. 23.

You could buy the steel nibs on pens for just a couple of bucks apiece. When I was a kid, I used my parents’ and grandparents’ gold-nibbed fountain pens, but those were thrown out once everybody got used to the ballpoint pen. I started looking for pens with flexible nibs and pens that were just more comfortable in my hand. I didn’t really go for aesthetics until much later.

I lived in Germany in the mid-’70s, and there was a stationery store around the block. I was pretty broke in those days, so I used to just enjoy looking at those pens. I could find relatively inexpensive, student-quality Montblancs in flea markets and junk stores at that time, so I began buying them.

Today my collection comprises about 1,000 fountain pens. Parker, OMAS, and Montblanc are the three companies most represented. I’m interested in the pens, but also the history of Montblanc and documenting the company. It’s been more than 30 years since I acquired my first Montblancs, so I’ve been researching and writing about them for some time.

I still look for them in this country and in Europe, but it’s very difficult to find old Montblancs in the U.S. One of the ways I’m able to acquire them on a limited budget—I’m a teacher and a writer, so I don’t have a huge income—is by trading the American pens that are relatively easy for me to acquire for Montblancs from European collectors. They’re able to acquire North American pens that are quite rare for them, and I’m able to find really interesting old Montblancs.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite pens?

Gabay: I love the celluloid model Montblancs from the 1950s and ’60s. I really like the 149, which is known as the flagship. It’s the biggest Montblanc still in production, and the company has been making it since 1952. Externally, they’re virtually unchanged. Other collectors in the field consider my article (“149 is 50”) on that pen to be definitive. That’s a pen I love to study, disassemble, and put back together.

The occupation of Hamburg was a great thing for Montblanc, in part because the Brits needed fountain pens.

I like limited-edition Montblancs, which I buy periodically and which really hold their value much better than any other modern, limited-production pens. I also like precious metal Montblancs. I like sterling, gold-filled, and vermeil Montblancs very much.

My oldest Montblancs are from the late 1920s. They work wonderfully. My oldest piston Montblancs are from the very late ’40s, and they still work great. How many 70-year-old products can you name that have never had parts replaced and still operate like the day they were made?

That’s why I also love Parkers from the ’20s so much. They’re brilliant pieces of engineering. One of my prized possessions is my mother-in-law’s 1945 Parker 51, which was given to her by her first serious boyfriend when she entered art school in the fall of 1945. This is a pen that has never had to be repaired. My mother-in-law used it daily until about 15 years ago when she gave it to me. It’s a 65-year-old product that works perfectly. These are really cool, little instruments to use, precise little tools.

Collectors Weekly: Do you use most of your pens?

Gabay: I’ve used a great many of them. I keep the most valuable ones in a safe deposit box. I don’t use those; some of them are just for investment. As far as standard-production pens, sometimes I’ll buy two Montblancs, use one, and keep another one pristine. I bought pens for my sons when they were very young to give them when they got older. I do use many of my pens, but it also depends upon the condition and the rarity.

I’ve had safety pens from the teens and 1920s that I didn’t use because they were so fragile, but they were interesting to have as part of a comprehensive collection. If I find a modern pen from the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, and it’s clearly been used and is consequently not quite so valuable, I’ll get a big charge out of using that. I enjoy using it much more than a newer pen because I love the history behind pens.

When looking for a pen, I pay attention to condition, materials, and quality. You can find a wonderful 70-year-old pen in terrible condition, or a pristine pen that was probably a third-quality pen. I like to use old pens. I tend to buy pens that I know how to work on, like Montblancs, Parkers, Sheaffers, and OMAS. I like pens I can restore or at least get working. Some I buy for my collection, and others I buy to trade.

Collectors Weekly: What advice would you have for someone who wants to start a pen collection?

Gabay: You can learn about these pens from a variety of sources. At one time there were three pen magazines in this country, but “Pen World” is the only one left. People in the U.K. can join the Writing Equipment Society, which puts out a nice publication. Pen Collectors of America, also produces a comprehensive vintage pen publication called “Pennant.” It really is a great magazine. There are also wonderful Italian, Japanese, and French magazines. There used to be a German magazine called “Pens Plus,” but it’s gone.

When all is said and done, Gabay's favorite Montblanc pen is the No. 149.

When all is said and done, Gabay’s favorite Montblanc pen is the No. 149.

The best way to learn about pens is hands-on. I’ve broken a lot of pens while trying to repair them, but each one I’ve broken has taught me something. I guess it’s really all about education.

There are also pen shows all over the world that you can go to. European pen shows are quite different from North American ones. A European pen show might have only 20 or 30 exhibitors, all high-end. A show in the U.S. will have between 100 and 200. Vendors at European pen shows might bring a few dozen very swanky pens, but here dealers bring hundreds because the audience is more diverse.

The largest pen show in the world is held every August in Washington, D.C. It’s an international event. The second largest shows are held in L.A. every February and in Chicago every May. People at these shows are happy to talk with new collectors and share information.

At pen shows, you get to see lots of examples of particular models in a range of conditions. You get to see reasonable prices, too, as the market is way down now due to the economy. Pens that I sold for $2,000 a couple of years ago are now going for much less. I’m selling very little. That means it’s a great time to get into the market.

You don’t have to be a collector of high-end pens. You can be a collector of pedestrian pens or student-quality pens and still have a very enriching hobby because there are so many pens out there.

The U.S. is actually one of the best places to collect pens. We didn’t have the devastation of war 60 years ago that the rest of the world had. We’re a consumer-oriented society, which means we buy cool stuff from other people and we make our own cool stuff. So they’re out there if you want them. Plus, they’re fun to use. I write for several hours a day. I love using a good pen.

Collectors Weekly: Thank you, Barry, for speaking with us today about Montblanc and other vintage pens.

(All images courtesy Maxpens unless otherwise noted)

2 comments so far

  1. tom jennerwein Says:

    I have a 1924 cardboard holiday store display of conklin pens and pencils that I found as the backing for an old print in perfect condition, short of its display backing. Can you tell me what its worth?

  2. john ball Says:

    Have a silver coloured telescopic pen.The drawing end is a pointed piece of plastic with a tiny loop.Is it some kind of architects pen?
    Looks like an edwardian era insrument

Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.