You can call 'em what you want. "Placeholders", "fill-ins", whatever. They're those "less than perfect" pens that you buy, knowing that you have little chance of getting a mint example of that particular model to fill out your collection. Sometimes it's because the pen in question is very, very rare, and even finding one is a once in a lifetime occasion. Or, perhaps it's the far more common case of being able to easily find one, maybe just not of being able to actually pay for it once you've found it at the next pen show!
Whatever the reason, there are some cases where the common (and quite good) advice of "buy the best example you can" might not apply. Sometimes, it's simply that the pen in question comes at such a good price that you can't avoid buying it! Even when a little logical thought "proves" to you that it isn't worth the price. This happened to me a while ago...
I had received a call from a local antique mall, they were letting me know that a dealer had gotten in "some pens". In a fit of eternal optimism, I had put my name and number down in their "wish list" ledger, and it looked as though my optimism had paid off! I rushed over to see what goodies were waiting patiently to be plundered.
Alas, it was not to be. My dreams of mint, NOS stickered Waterman Patricians and Parker Oversize Vacumatics were just that: Dreams. Reality proved to be nothing more than a beaten up Esterbrook at $35, and a "no-name" in the same rough shape at $55. Oh well. I decided to go ahead and stroll through the rest of the mall, "just in case". Sure enough, just in case, turned out to be four of five cases down the aisle! It was big and bright red, with that distinctive Sheaffer clip. "Oh, one of those cheap-o plastic cartridge filler pens" thinks I. But then it dawns on me.... There's a lever on the barrel!
The clerk was kind enough to open the case for me, and sure enough, it turns out to be a Sheaffer lever filler flattop from the 1920s. Not your every day Sheaffer, either, but an oversize Cherry Red Secretary. The Cherry Red Sheaffers are very tough to find. It's an entirely different color from the more orange shade of the 3-25 and 5-30 pens that are commonly found.
I don't know where they fit in the whole "rare pen", "uncommon pen", "scarce pen" hierarchy, but I'll go so far as to call them at the best "scarce", and maybe even "rare". In any case, this was the first I'd ever seen "in the wild" in my years of collecting. And, thank you very much, priced to sell at $35! So, needless to say, the pen left the store with me.
So, where's the dilemma, you ask? Well, let's begin with condition. The most important thing about any vintage pen is the condition, right? We've all heard that. It's true, too. The condition of this pen was frankly horrible.
In fact, looking at it impartially, and without considering the color, it was a "bad choice" to buy it. I spent $35. Actually, $38 by the time we hand off some loot to the governor to spend on a new football stadium or a highway overpass. Now, what did I get for my $38? Well, the nib would be worth twice that, easily. If it weren't missing the tip of one tine. The cap is valuable, except for the fact that it's got a couple of nasty cap lip cracks, and of course the cap band is loose, and the clip brassed something horrible.
The barrel? A crack, small, but there, through the threads. And the end looks to have been exposed to some heat, it's got a huge dent melted into it, just south of the lever. I suppose that it's just barely possible that the pressure bar might not be rusted into a solid blob of gunk, but judging form the rattling sound when you shake the barrel, I wouldn't want to bet the farm on it. I didn't even bother opening it up to check. The lever, on the other hand, it looks fine.
So... What's an early Sheaffer flattop lever worth? Ten bucks? Calculate it that way, and I'm $28 in the hole! Looks like I screwed up big time buying this thing. Safest thing to do would be to simply chuck it in the trash, and just pretend it never happened.
Well, maybe not. After all, looked at another way, it's probably a "good buy". First of all, at $35, it's hardly likely to break the bank. It's not as though I had to choose between this pen and the rent payment. Now, at say $350, it would have been a different equation all together. At least for me it would have!
The issue of "too much money" out of the way, it's probably good to look at it as the chance to own a model that I otherwise wouldn't be able to afford. I have a small collection of Sheaffer flattop pens. It's what I call an "accidental collection", since I certainly didn't set out to collect them. It just happened!
Since it's not one of my "real collections", I never feel good spending a lot of money on adding to it. But one way or another, I've managed to end up with some neat flattop Sheaffers over the years. Buying this Secretary allowed me to add an unusual model to the group at a price that fit in with the "non-serious" nature of that particular collection.
Now, sure, the pen is in bad shape, but it's not all that bad. I mean, it's in one piece at least! When it's in the display rack, it looks OK. Better than no pen at all, at any rate. I display my pens with the caps on, so the missing tip on the nib doesn't show. Neither does the crack though the threads.
The cap lip cracks are small enough to be missed at a glance. The brassing on the clip is tougher. It is visible, but not something that's too distracting.
Especially when you take the bright color of the cap and barrel into consideration. I display the Secretary with the other flattop Sheaffers, and it is placed between the early hard rubber versions, and a couple of the orange colored pens. In this location, the bright Cherry Red is what catches your eye, not the brassed clip or the cap lip cracks. I can live with those.
That huge dent in the barrel, though.... That's a pretty hard flaw to miss, try as I might! And, since it's located right under the lever too, I can't even turn it under. Obviously, I display all my lever fillers with the lever showing. Don't you? So simply hiding the dent is just not an option. I just live with it.
On the rare occasion that someone asks about it, I explain about the pen, tell them how rare it is, and how lucky I am to have found any example at all. Most non-pen people are pretty bored by this time, but if they're still awake, they're pretty impressed by the fact that a, eighty year old pen is still around at all, even in a dented condition! Of course, if they are pen people, than no explanation is necessary. They understand.
It's not perfect, but I've come to love my orphan Sheaffer. I guess, imperfect condition and all, it all comes down to this: I've yet to look at it in the rack and regret spending the $35 to rescue it from the antique shop. I can't say that about some of my other "great buys"!
copyright 2002 William Riepl