Thursday, June 7, 2018

Yet another eBay scam

When buying pens online, most buyers know to be wary of items coming from certain countries known as hotbeds of counterfeiting and scammery. Dishonest sellers in those countries are now getting around this by falsely stating that they are located in other places, places less likely to arouse suspicion. An ongoing thread in a Fountain Pen Network forum tells of a limited edition Montblanc from a seller registered in Boardman, Oregon, which ended up being shipped to the US buyer from China -- with tracking information that made it appear as if the pen was being sent from Germany.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Peter Miller's reproduction pen trays

Many reproductions aren't made to deceive. Nonetheless, as time goes by and they acquire a bit of wear and age, they can end up mistaken for originals. I've noticed this beginning to happen with the pen trays originally made and sold by the late Peter Miller, an example of which is shown below.

Peter's trays were ubiquitous for a couple of decades, starting at the end of the 1980s. Nearly every pen collector owned a few. They came with either Parker or Waterman labels (nicely printed on plastic strips, the Waterman version with shiny gold letters on black), and in various configurations -- most common variations upon the basic single tray shown above being double-wide and over-under (two trays in one double-height frame). The felt color also varied, with green and red by far the most common. Since original trays were scarce and expensive, these attractive repros were understandably popular -- so much so, that they are immediately recognizable to anyone who was active in pen collecting during their heyday.

For those who aren't so familiar with the look of Peter's trays, a glance at their corners and their backs should be enough to distinguish them from originals. Their wood frames are assembled with simple mitered butt joints at the corners, whereas original trays were made with dovetail joints, as seen below.

The bottoms of the repro trays are closed up with a rectangle of stiff cardboard held in place by wooden stringers, small tacks, and a blobby application of hot glue. As these trays were never meant to deceive, no effort was made to hide their method of construction -- which is decidedly modern, and a bit slapdash. Older trays are also less than highly finished on their undersides, but even those using similar construction do not generally have the wooden stringers, and the cardboard or wood closure sheet will show more signs of age.

In addition, the labels used on the repros are printed on much thinner stock than was used for originals -- more like thick tape than plastic sheet -- with the gold of the Waterman label much more reflective than anything available in the early 20th century. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to have stamped these on the back with the maker's name and "REPRODUCTION". At the time, though, the pen community was small and Peter's trays were so familiar that no one thought about the possibility of confusion in years to come.

PS Peter Miller's display tray and case manufacturing operation was eventually passed along to David Tallant (I can't recall the timing, but I think it was while Peter was still alive). While it is possible that these products are still being made on a small scale upon request, they have not been offered new for many years now, neither at pen shows, nor online.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Fake alert: advertising signs from India

Many pen collectors also collect pen-related material, such as point of sale displays and advertising. For the most part, the market for such material has been too small and too low-dollar to attract much interest from fakers. The exception is porcelain enamel signs, where a voracious, high-dollar market for original signs advertising automobilia, Coca Cola, etc has given rise to industrial scale manufacture of reproductions -- with the manufacturers now turning out signs with a narrower market as well, including pen signs. The most commonly seen are for Waterman, with the great majority coming out of India.

The sign above is typical, and has been offered repeatedly on eBay by Indian sellers. They usually have been banged up a bit so they don't look quite as new as they actually are. Unfortunately, eBay doesn't seem to be doing anything to crack down on what is now a veritable deluge of fake porcelain signs. You can get some indication of the magnitude of the fakery by this Pinterest post, which points out no less than 303 examples. There's also no shortage of sites and forum posts discussing the problem and proffering advice. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify a repro without having a genuine example for comparison. In the case of the sign above, I happen to have an example of the original that served as its model, so it is comparatively easy to see that the letters are sloppily shaped on the repro.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Fake vintage pens on eBay

Over the past few months there have been an increasing number of posts on Facebook regarding fake pens on eBay. Many of these discussions are in pen groups that require membership, and so are easily overlooked by the general public. This blog can be read by all, so I'll go ahead and pass along some of the warnings. Please note that when I write that an item is fake or being misrepresented, it is a statement of opinion -- but an expert one, that I am willing to stand behind. Whether the seller offering the piece is doing so knowingly is another matter. Regarding this, you can draw your own conclusions. Note that some sellers of fakes maintain a 100% positive feedback rating with eBay. Often this is because the fakes are so obvious that those who recognize them for what they are simply don't bid or buy -- and only buyers can leave feedback. In other cases, the buyers have only come to realize what they bought months or years later, too late to give feedback. Reports from nonbidders to eBay that an item is fake seem to fall upon deaf ears. It seems eBay takes the position that it's the word of one person (or more) against another's, rather than if there's smoke, there's likely fire.

One of the most prolific and brazen purveyors of fake and misrepresented pens is the seller known as thisol*house, operating out of a Post Office Box address in Randleman, North Carolina. While some of his pens seem OK, buyers have reported overgrading and failure to disclose damage, and his standard description claims that his pens come from his own private collection -- even though many over the years have been seen to have been purchased by him on eBay just weeks before. The real problem pens from this seller, however, tend to be early (or early-style) pens with fancy metal or pearl-slab overlays, such as this "Holland":

The pearl barrel is unlike anything ever seen on any vintage pen, and is surely taken from another sort of object -- most likely a parasol handle or lorgnette holder. The bulbous metal end piece on the cap is also unlike anything genuine, and likewise has been harvested from some other item. The nib is genuine John Holland, but that's a part that costs relatively little. Without handling the pen in person I cannot tell if the cap and barrel parts are old and repurposed or newly made. Others who have bought similar pens from this seller, however, have reported that at least some parts have been fabricated out of modern black plastic, and so poorly that the cap does not fit the barrel without wobbling. Some of his pens have also had sections of a form never seen on any genuine vintage pen, sections which can safely be assumed to have been newly made.

Another misrepresented pen is this so-called "Aikin Lambert":

Once again there is an anomalous end piece on the cap -- I suspect used to cover the end so that the cap can be made out of tube stock, rather than bored out from a solid rod. It's awfully shiny for a genuine hard rubber cap. The barrel may be mostly genuine, but it most certainly isn't Aikin Lambert production. The slabs are wide and sloppily fitted, a giveaway that the pen was a contemporary economy knockoff, of the sort discussed here, still widely available for very little money. Take such a pen, replace its original nib with a name-brand nib, and offer it to the inexperienced as a name-brand pen: that's a bit of dishonesty that unscrupulous sellers have been engaged in for years.

Currently listed on eBay is the glass-nibbed cheapie shown above, "enhanced" with a Montblanc-style star in the cap top and fake Montblanc imprints on cap and barrel. German Montblanc experts are scoffing at this listing, but unsuspecting collectors are bidding on it nonetheless.

The same seller has other so-called "Montblancs" that are equally fake. Bulgaria has been the source for many of these counterfeits, but they have been sold for long enough now that examples routinely turn up in Germany and elsewhere. Note that this seller currently still has 100% positive feedback, and remains active despite multiple complaints from leading German pen experts to eBay (plus at least one message directly to the seller, who can now surely be assumed to be knowing exactly what he is doing).

A further caution: if an eBay seller insists on payment by bank transfer rather than Paypal, you'll have no recourse if you get stuck with a fake, or with nothing at all. Back before Paypal offered buyer protection guarantees, I used to use for large purchases when I didn't know the seller. It's still a good option -- and if the seller insists on a bank transfer and won't consent to use it, that's a pretty good indication that you should walk away from the deal.

UPDATE: thisol*house left a comment on this post on May 19, 2018 at 9:49 PM, which he has since deleted -- for good reason, I'd say, which is why I kept a copy. Here it is, verbatim:
Hello David. I hope this find you well. I sell vintage pens on ebay under the ID: thisol*house. Question: Would you rather... have a fancy, restored, classic Corvette that looks like a show car and roars like a tiger... or an all original classic Corvette that just sits in the garage and can't drive anything around except your pathetic ego? While I understand that there are some who advocate for leaving a pen all original, some who, strangely, actually appreciate 125 years of oxidation and gunk buildup on an otherwise useless object (and you people are weird), surprisingly, there are actually quite a few folk who enjoy their pens being Beautiful and, get this, FUNCTIONAL! Your blog makes some incorrect assumptions and conclusions that I would like to clear up for those interested. Every pen I sell is clearly stated as restored; having been disassembled, cleaned, polished, reassembled, re-polished, serviced, tested and presented (with excellent details and photographs) ready for your favorite ink! I have the excellent feedback that I do because my pens are FABULOUS writing instruments. YES, hard rubber CAN be polished to a mirror shine, with effort, care and love for the instrument (and proper surface preparation, namely 2500 grit sandpaper). Calling a refurbished pen a "fake" is like saying..."that looks like a Mustang, but Ford never used that color, so it must be a fake car." Changing a gold band or damaged nib section, or removing and replacing missing/damaged/cracked pearl panels, does NOT make a pen "fake". And by the way, John Holland nibs do NOT cost "relatively little." These fantastic 140 year old noodle nibs are almost impossible to find with good tipping, then the tipping must be smoothed, then the nib polished and properly mounted with an adequate vintage feed. Several COMPETING EBAY SELLERS have attacked the credibility of my pen business. Instead, maybe they should extend their efforts to examining my business model to try to improve their own businesses. I have 4320 feedback, 100% positive feedback (not counting one neg from competitive pen seller Susan Bowen from Texas, who REFUSED to return the $555 John Holland pearl pen, because it was BEAUTIFUL and wrote like a DREAM!). I offer a 100% Buyer Satisfaction Guarantee on EVERY pen I sell, which I ALWAYS stand behind, but is very rarely needed. Returns are ALWAYS accepted. I don't even ask for a reason. I even pay return shipping. AND, I produce professionally restored, vintage pens that make handwriting once again a JOY! Yes, maybe the competition could try a little customer service and caring for their customers needs... encouraging new collectors instead of berating them for asking how to fill a cartridge pen. Pen folk were once a noble breed, but like everything else, the world is changing. I have enjoyed the thousands of hours spent restoring my pens over the years, and YES, if they went across my workbench two weeks ago or two decades ago, they ARE from my personal collection! Yes... 40 years, and they're almost all gone now... and I have no reservations in saving... I'm glad I sold my collection.
Incidentally, the mention of Susan Bowen actually refers to Glen Bowen, veteran collector, author, and founder of Pen World magazine. Glen bought one of thisol*house's fakes to get a hands-on look, and to see exactly what it was and how it was put together.

UPDATE, 29 Dec 2018: The thisol*house account has been quiet for several months now, but the same seller is still very much active on eBay under his secondary username, dowrite2. Most of the pens on offer recently appear genuine; we have not seen any of the complete fakes for some months, though there is the occasional deliberately misleading listing for a flashy but cheaply-made no-name dropper-filler with a name-brand nib stuck in the front -- this "Laughlin" being a recent example. In this case the seller was careful to describe it as a "Laughlin pen" only in the main photo, and not in the title or the text of the description, where it is referred to as an eyedropper with a Laughlin nib.

UPDATE, 10 Jan 2020: He's back and up to his old tricks once again -- though he seems to be taking more care to make his descriptions simply misleading rather than brazenly false. An example is this "Vintage 1890's EYEDROPPER Fountain Pen", which is not explicitly described as a Grieshaber in the listing text, though the attribution is implied in the writing sample.

Apparently this pen was returned, as it was originally sold for a whopping $650 on 22 Dec 2019 -- a very nice return for popping a Grieshaber nib into a no-name cheapie overlay. Note that it would appear that the nib was originally a ventless dip nib, and that the round vent hole was added (I'm not a Grieshaber specialist myself, but that's what the experts's consensus seems to be).

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A special Schnell

Schnell Penselpen combos are uncommon and desirable. I've seen quite a few over the years, but when this example turned up, I couldn't recall having seen another in metal (celluloid is the norm). This one is unquestionably correct and original: the barrel opening is made specifically to accommodate the distinctive Schnell slide filler, whose internal retaining ring is soldered in place inside the barrel. The nib is Schnell, as is the feed.

Yet pretty much everything else isn't uniquely Schnell at all. Examined as a whole, the pen clearly came out of the same factory as the metal lever-filler combos most often found branded as Hicks, Edward Todd, and Twinpoint. While the cap threading sometimes varies from brand to brand, the pencil ends are identical and can freely be swapped, while the section profile is distinctive as is the internal construction, with both lever pivots and pressure bar assemblies soldered in place.

The differing thread profiles are visible in the detail above. Interestingly, the longer section is on the shorter ringtop combo, rather than on the slightly longer Edward Todd, which has a clip.

The metal content markings typically use the same block capital lettering, too, along with the unusual use of "PLATE" instead of "GOLD FILLED" or "G.F."

Although proof is still lacking, the likelihood is that Hicks was the actual maker of this group of combos.

ADDENDUM: One of our correspondents formerly owned a similar Schnell in the full-length version with clip. Whether any were made in solid gold or sterling silver remains to be seen.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Charles N. Packard

I recently received a call from an old friend in the estate liquidation business. I hadn't seen him in a few years, and he'd accumulated a number of pens that he thought might be of interest. There were several dip pens in the group, with the largest shown above -- a well-used hard rubber holder, broken and mended, with a #10 Charles N. Packard nib (the small nib, included for scale, is from a Sheaffer Snorkel).

Packard nibs aren't all that common, so it seemed a good excuse to put together some information on their maker. We can start with a couple of obituaries; the one below appeared in the American Stationer, vol. 51, March 29, 1902, p. 27:

Additional details, including Packard's age, were provided by the New England Stationer and Printer, vol. 16, April 1902, p. 82:

According to the official Massachusetts death records, Packard died on March 11, 1902, from "Leucaemia: exhaustion". According to that same entry, he was born in Plainfield, to Royal L. Packard and Mercy Hersey. Packard is recorded in the 1900 census as married and living in Springfield, born in July 1833, and as of June 4, 1900, 66 years old. Other records include that of his marriage to Abbie B. Holmes, 22, on Jan 1, 1857 in Williamsburgh, where Packard is listed as a "Gold Pen Pointer", and of the death of his daughter Helen F. at the age of two months and fifteen days, of cholera, on July 8, 1872.

Despite what some have claimed, I can find no record of Packard ever having lived or worked in New York. There were other Charles Packards living in Massachusetts during our Charles Packard's lifetime, which might explain some of the confusion.

UPDATE: Packard does indeed appear to have spent time in New York. He is listed in volume 78 of Trow's directory for the year ending May 1, 1865 on p. 682, as "Packard Charles N. pens, 4 Maiden ln. h 142 E. 28th". His stay in New York is also mentioned in an article in the Boston Globe (October 27, 1901, p. 33) that is mostly about his astronomical clock. This article also recounts that Packard learned the trade of gold pen making in a Hampshire County factory -- in all likelihood, Dawson, Warren & Hyde. Packard does not appear in Trow's 1862 or 1872 editions; he would appear to have left New York for Springfield around 1871.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A warning about pens in ultrasonic cleaners

I've been meaning to post on this for some time, but was somehow hoping to have photos to illustrate the point. Doesn't make all that much sense, I admit, since once I discovered the risk, I wasn't about to repeat the mistake just for a photo's sake.

OK, so what am I talking about? If you put a pen or pen part into an ultrasonic cleaner so that only part of it is immersed (typically, just the nib or nib and section), the ultrasonic waves can travel through the portion that isn't immersed and create a hot spot where the waves converge. That spot can end up hot enough to blister celluloid, as I discovered when cleaning a later-production Sheaffer plunger-filler's Triumph nib with the internal filling unit still attached.

This doesn't happen if the part is fully immersed, since the cleaning solution disperses the heat and probably also dampens the natural resonance of the part. There also seems to be more risk if the barrel is sitting at a slant, as opposed to held vertically -- but in any case, either immerse the assembly to be cleaned completely, or go slow and use multiple short cleaning cycles instead of a single longer one. Depending on the power output of your cleaner, you might want to go with cycles of 15-30 seconds rather than 90-180.

The vulnerability is greatest with thin-walled barrels. Pelikans and other similar celluloid-barreled piston-fillers are at risk, along with plunger-fillers as noted above. I have not experienced problems with barrels of hard rubber or acrylic to date, nor with the thicker celluloid barrels of Vacumatics.

ADDENDUM: Here is a photo of a blistered Sheaffer plunger-filler barrel. It was almost fully immersed while in the ultrasonic, but "almost" clearly wasn't enough, as the hot spot formed right above the waterline. The cycle time was 180 seconds.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Large increase for cheapest international shipping rates

You may have noticed that our base rate for international shipments just went up substantially. Not our fault -- USPS made some dramatic changes as of January 21 that caught many of us by surprise.  In particular, the cheapest method of international shipping, First Class International for Large Envelopes/Flats, can now only be used for documents, not for merchandise. So merchandise, however small, must be sent using the First Class International Package rate, at a minimum cost of $13.30 -- over ten dollars more than the base rate for Large Envelopes/Flats.

Luckily there is something of a workaround, though it seems it is only offered through USPS partners such as and Endicia. For a $2.50 per piece surcharge, the Large Envelopes/Flats rate can be used for merchandise. That brings the total shipping charge to just under $5, but now the items have to be sent to a USPS regional processing center (for us, in New Jersey), where they are relabeled for the international part of their voyage. Since the international label isn't on the package when it is initially mailed here in the USA, neither is the tracking number. Not a huge issue for us, but it's causing concern among eBay sellers: eBay penalizes sellers who don't ship promptly enough, and now packages sent by this method don't get scanned and shown as shipped until they go through the regional processing center. What is of greater concern is that with the service (which we use), the option to automatically email recipients with shipment information is no longer available. This would appear to be a software glitch, but it's still a major inconvenience -- so please bear with us if shipment notifications on international orders don't get sent out as promptly as before.

All in all, this is a most unfortunate change, which will surely hurt American sellers of all sorts of small articles -- quite a contrast to countries that use postal policies to boost exports.

UPDATE: As of February 6, appears to have restored the option to automatically email recipients when sending items by First Class International.

AND MORE: Another aspect of these changes is the implementation of electronic submission of Customs declarations. Instead of the Customs statement being attached to the package prior to our dropping it off at the Post Office, it is now transmitted automatically at the time our shipping label is generated. It is then printed out and attached to the package at the USPS processing center prior to the package being shipped out of the country. The intent is clear enough, and I'm sure the new system will eventually make processing more efficient. I'm not sure the rollout is going all that smoothly, however, as I've read that things have not been going well at some of the regional processing centers,  and I've noticed that several of our recent international packages have been directed not to the nearby New Jersey center used at first, but all the way to the center in California -- even though some of the packages were going to Europe, not Asia.
This is also now affecting the higher classes of international package delivery, not just First Class International. So if your order is being sent by Priority or Express, and the tracking number still shows only "printed", that's why -- rest assured we still deliver all our packages to the Post Office the day the labels are printed, no matter what problems USPS is having with displaying up-to-date tracking information.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Instructional videos on nib straightening and repair

As online instructions on fountain pen repair continue to proliferate, one particular area remains largely left out: the reshaping of bent or maladjusted nibs. This has not gone unnoticed, and I've been particularly aware of the situation given my efforts to make affordable nib blocks available to the pen community.

Contrary to what some indignant posters claim, the lack of nib repair primers is not due to any unwillingness to share information. In fact, those who have nib repair expertise have often added helpful comments to online discussions about nib work (noting that all too often their input is then blithely ignored, as with the use of shims). The real problem is that the number of people who are truly expert nibworkers is much smaller than the number of those who are able to advise on more general pen repair questions, and they are almost all professionals or semiprofessionals with the inevitable constant backlog of work to be done. To expect them to take time off to compose free tutorials is unrealistic, and to blame them for not doing so is clearly out of line.

Nor can the skills being sought be easily taught. They are difficult enough to demonstrate and explain in person, much more so through the written word, and challenging even through video. Straightening nibs is all about dealing with complex curves in three dimensions, precisely controlling the stretching and compressing of the tempered gold. It's far from a matter of just making simple bends, or pressing sheet metal into forms. Taking out a bend is vastly more involved than putting one in, as anyone who has worked in metal will confirm.

In addition to all this, the work is done in small scale and under magnification, with the fingers and tools right on top of the workpiece. Taking photos or videos that adequately show the process is going to be tough indeed, and virtually impossible for the solo nibworker without bringing in an assistant  to do the camera work. Yes, it will happen eventually. But while you are waiting, know that it's not without good reason.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Setting things straight about Parker Quink

It seems the battle against misinformation is never-ending. Once one old collectors' myth is put to rest, new ones arise to take its place. I've recently noticed a sudden upsurge of confused factoids about Parker inks in the fountain pen groups on Facebook. Inks are rather outside my main areas of research interest, but I know enough to be able to see a problem in the making -- so let's set things straight before they get totally out of hand.

First, when we're looking at Parker ink production from the 1930s through the 1950s, we're talking about three product lines: Quink, "51" ink, and Superchrome. Quink is the oldest of the three, and the only one still in production (with minor reformulations). Quink was introduced in 1931; despite what the confused Wikipedia article states (at least, until I can get a chance to correct it [now corrected; let's hope no one changes it back -- D.]), Quink was a mild ink that would not harm pens such as Parker's top-line Vacumatics which held their ink directly within celluloid barrels, as well as models such as the Challenger whose sections featured transparent celluloid ink windows. 

The strongly alkaline pH balance and isopropyl alcohol content that distinguished "51" ink were NEVER features of Quink. The Parker 51 and "51" ink were developed in tandem, the pen designed specifically so it would be able to hold up to its special caustic ink. The ink was explicitly promoted and sold as suitable only for the Parker 51. Parker openly stated that it would clog and damage pens not specifically made to use it. "51" ink was introduced in 1941, and was replaced in 1947 by Superchrome -- a somewhat milder but still corrosive reformulation, similarly marketed for use exclusively in pens made to use it: the Parker 51 and its budget offspring, the Parker 21. 

It does appear that there was an initial release of "51" ink as "Double Quink" (discussion here), but I very much suspect that this took place only as unadvertised market trials done as part of the well-documented market trials of preproduction Parker 51 pens from 1939 on. It is telling that I have yet to see a photo of an actual surviving Double Quink bottle, and that David Shepherd was unable to come up with one for his Parker 51 monograph despite years of diligent focused collecting and free access to Parker's own archives.

ADDENDUM: While rewriting the Wikipedia article on Quink, I took a closer look at the apocryphal story that Quink had been invented by and named for a Filipino chemist, Francisco Quisumbing. While clearly false -- the details of the development and naming of Quink have been thoroughly documented -- it was puzzling how such a story could have arisen in the first place. As it turned out, a Francisco A. Quisumbing had in fact founded a successful ink company in the Philippines in 1923, a few years after completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University. The basic biographical details appear in the 1937 volume of Who's Who in the Philippines, pp. 128-29. Quisumbing contributed the preface to a 1960 book, Forensic Chemistry of Ink in Documentary Investigation, by Paul R. Verzosa, in which it is mentioned that the Quisumbing Ink Products company supplied all agencies of the Philippine government under an exclusive contract (p. 22).
I was also able to find mention (and dismissal) of the Quisumbing/Quink myth in a book published in 1999, so the story has been around for a good long time (Virgilio L. Malang, Inventions & Innovations: A Glimpse of the Filipino Legacy, p. xiv).