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Bonhams Fine Writing Instruments

The prestigious auction house offers rare and one-of-a-kind pens from the past and today

by David Graver
on 17 December 2013

Tomorrow, 18 December 2013, global auction house Bonhams will place over 500 lots of fine writing utensils up for sale. Their selections—many being a writer's ultimate fantasy—include a magnificent and diverse array of 60 vintage offerings and many modern limited items. All of the instruments were plucked from a single private collection, from a collector with quite the keen eye who is consigning 4000 pieces to Bonhams. Due to the large number of items to be sold, this auction will be just the beginning, with more to come in the future.

The Director of the Fine Writing Instruments Department at Bonhams, Ivan Briggs, took time to meet with CH, sharing some insight and let us scope out the pieces. "These are analog articles in the digital world," he says. "For a long time pens felt like yesterday's glamour," whereas now, he explains, "they've taken on the glamour of the antiquarian. These pens offer insight into what people treasured once upon a time, even in the most quotidian items."

Briggs calls to attention that "things are so standardized now. People used to keep the same pen for many years. They would find something that spoke to them on a serviceable and aesthetic level." He says he's noticed a resurgence in these values now, as well a shift from vintage buyers and modern limited buyers being opposed, to seeing a stronger crossover.


"This is no longer an insular community. We've reached a tipping point and there's more awareness." This is something Briggs further attributes to a desire for something more personalized. While everyone's phone looks the same—even with customization—pens not only vary greatly across time, they also mold to an owner. "People who buy vintage pens actually use them. Pens adopt elements of their owner's personality. Heavier hands lead to a heavier ink flow, the nib adjusts under the weight. The angle of your hand alters the nib, as well." A visible relationship forms between owner and object.

AztecPens-4.jpg AztecPens-5.jpg

Among the many masterful creations, we were struck by a truly remarkable Parker Number 60 Awanyu "Aztec" Gold-Filled Fountain Pen (1911). Only half a dozen of these pens are believed to be in existence, and while they're discussed and read about, it's a treat to see one in person. It's as much a work of art as it is a tool for conveying language. American-made, the implement has a gold-plated barrel and cap, both having been spot-hammered drawing contrast to the stunning decorative relief. The almost wand-like length and shape contribute to a grand mystical sensibility. The pen bears its age with grace.

Both the rare Waterman’s "Three Snakes" Sterling Silver Fountain Pen (circa 1888-98) and the custom Montblanc Safety Fountain Pen (1930s) also caught our attention. The former features six genuine emerald eyes atop a sterling silver barrel and cap. It's also, according to Briggs, "the only example of a three snake Waterman ever found. No other examples have surfaced. It's a unique undiscovered pen, the only one of its kind." Much like the Parker, it also channels a mythical spirit. Historically, it's one of the earliest Waterman Snake pens in existence. The latter also happens to be another one-of-a-kind piece. This vintage customized offering is heavy gold plated and features many Masonic themes and emblems, as well as multiple diamonds. Briggs noted that with this pen, "Information is scant. There's a lot speculation so we try to stick to the facts as much as I can pin them down." The original pen beneath the personalized detail is a Montblanc safety pen, complete with a fully retractable 14K gold Montblanc nib. It's highly ornate and mesmerizing by way of the masonic invocations.

"Because of the limitations of form, pens are small and with the rounded barrel, you can only see some of the details at a time," Briggs observed. This leads a holder to spin and explore. The experience is "a return to something more personal and these pens fall into a personal intimate space for the people who use them." Pen connoisseurship is on the rise, and Briggs has crossed the path of many "pen spotters." That makes sense as a backlash in a digital obsessed culture. Altogether, these are sensational and unique items, compelling to collectors of all fine things.

View the full Bonhams catalog online to learn more.

Images courtesy of Bonhams

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