Sunday, November 7, 2021

Grading vintage pens: why isn't there a standardized system?

The grading of vintage pens has been a topic of discussion for not just years, but decades. I've been meaning to post on this for nearly as long, but rather than writing up my own thoughts I will instead pass along some of the shared wisdom of the participants in a thread from May 2020 in the Antique Writing Instruments and Accessories Facebook group. Each paragraph below is a separate comment in that discussion:
"I'm rather dubious about the whole idea. The problem is that pens cannot be graded along a single scale. Unlike coins, which through normal circulation wear in a consistent manner, pens do not age consistently. One example might have extensive brassing but fine color, which another might have excellent trim but mediocre color. A single grade is insufficient description."
"What doesn't get mentioned when coins and cards are brought up is that the items graded then have to be slabbed. Otherwise there's no way of knowing if the assigned grade goes with the proffered specimen. No one is going to want pens (or pencils) that are permanently locked into a lucite block and cannot be handled."
"In any case, it is folly to think that any grading system could get any acceptance at all if introduced by someone with no knowledge of the field and completely unknown to it."
"I used to collect coins extensively, and at the time there were three different major grading companies that all might give different results. It was common for people who didn't like the grade they got to break them out of the slab and either resubmit them or send them to a different company to grade shop. I think we're just fine with what we have with pens."
"The bigger issue, frankly, is widespread overgrading. I'd love to see something done about that, both as a collector and as a conscientious seller. It's maddening to see the virtually unanimous praise in online groups and forums for sellers who are notorious for representing overpolished and obviously reblackened pens as pristine, but that seems to be the social dynamic -- where almost no one is willing to say anything bad about another group member, and where those who do speak out are excoriated and dismissed as bitter haters."
"The polishing and reblacking thing drives me absolutely insane. And that's even ignoring the claims some people make about their reblacking solution and polishes"
"Yes, anyone who tries to say "hold on, wait a minute" is trampled, and anyone without any backchannel access gets a completely distorted picture of what is what."
"This might be well-intentioned, but it's dead before it leaves the starting gate. Only a multidimensional characterization can provide the information needed to consider the condition (and, in turn, to feed into a calculation about the value) of a vintage fountain pen."
"I know there is a longing for a single grade, because it's so neat and lends itself to direct comparisons, sorting, etc. But it's misguided and wrongheaded. No collector of even modest education in the field would ever be satisfied with a single letter or number when desiring to know the condition of a pen. Never, ever."
"Having been involved in the discussion for 20+ years I think the best we can do is as complete a description as possible. There are so many variables that would go into grading you could call a pen average and a description could support that. Another pen could be exceptional but, the description would support that. Without the detailed description the grade would be useless. So a grading system is meaningless leaving one with as complete a description as possible."
"I think another factor with pens specifically is that the grade can and does change over time. Particularly with delicate plastics, the condition can change drastically over a couple of years. That doesn't happen in the same way with coins, for example"

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