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 I've noticed this beginning to happen with the pen trays originally made and sold by the late Peter Miller, an example of which is shown below.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 escrow.com 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).