Tag Archives: preowned pen

Alexandre Dumas: The Man & The Pen

Alexandre Dumas wrote some of the greatest novels in history. It is difficult not to love “The Three Musketeers,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

Alexandre Dumas is my favorite writer of the 19th century. Nobody comes close to his adventures, characters or ability to capture the human condition. If you spend any time with his most famous novels, all of his characters are easily recognizable as people you can identify with in modern times. That is the secret sauce that elevates his writing to a timeless status.

My love of his work started at the age of 13. I picked up “The Count of Monte Cristo” on a bit of a whim. Before I knew it, I was hooked. It was pure literary crack. In spite of its length, I could not put it down. The tragic tale of Edmond Dantes and his need for vengeance is still rivetting. I teach fencing classes to junior high and high school students. Every 4 years or so, as new batches of kids rotate into class, I give them an end-of-the-year gift of a copy, and those who read it…even the 12-year-old girls…all come back grateful for a read that rocks their world as much as any Harry Potter or “Hunger Games” novel. (The highest praise of youth today.)

And honestly, Dumas only gets better with age! If you only read his works as a youth, you NEED to revisit them. Since turning 30 more than a decade ago, I’ve made a concious effort to reread at least one of his novels every year. There is soooo much more depth and realism that I missed my first time through as a teenager.

Here’s a small selection of my books by Alexandre Dumas featuring early translations and modern reprintings.

“The Three Musketeers” take on an almost cartoonish quality in our modern pop culture, but to revisit them, you find a complicated story of love, sex, loyalty, honor, war and true friendship. The musketeers are ordinary men in extra-ordinary circumstances. Clever, hard working, mostly honest (you really can’t trust Aramis much), these are 4 fellows who know how to game the system and make the most of the life of warriors. Dumas first wrote the novel as a serial in newspapers in 1844. It took Paris, and then the world, by storm. He actually followed it up with 4 more books: “Twenty Years After,” “The Vicomte de Bragellone,” “Louise de la Valliere” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.” The last one is my absolute favorite, and its symbolic significance–no spoilers, I promise–completely held me in its grasp. Not only did it fully reveal the truths of all the main characters to me, it really helped me to make better sense of the world around me at the time I first read it. Pretty impressive for a novel that came out 170 years ago in 1847.

A new book of the Musketeer series called “The Red Sphinx” was just rediscovered. It was in serialization when Dumas died in 1870! Technically, it doesn’t have an end, but some of his notes divulge how it was to end. Although I have yet to read it, it is supposed to take place about 20 days after the original “The Three Musketeers” novel ended.

More than this, Dumas wrote 300 books! He also wrote many plays, newspaper, magazine and fictional short stories. Another of his most famous stories is “The Corsican Brothers.” Here nobel twins, who were separated at birth, can feel each other’s nervous systems and emotions from across great distances…eventually learning of their parents tragic murder and uniting to extract revenge.

I own and have read dozens of his lesser known works. Most of them are as good as his biggest hits. The real trick is finding good translations! For me, the tranlator helps to be from the late 19th century or early 20th century. They try to capture the English language of the time period in which Dumas was writing. This builds a rhythm and poetry that Dumas conveyed in the original French. Modern translations fail for me because they try too hard to make it sound like modern, American English language and times. It destroys the cadence of the language and the romance of the 1800s, as well as the eras in which Dumas was writing about.

These are 2 of three volumes that I own of the original source material of “The Three Musketeers.” These are “The Memoirs of D’Artagnan” in an early 20th century translation!

How big a junkie am I? I found an early 20th century translation of the 3-volume biography of the actual 4th musketeer D’Artagnan! I have yet to read it, but I can’t wait. It supposedly gave Dumas the inspiration for writing the adventures of the musketeers in his fictional masterpieces.

Dumas also was a fascinating man, even without his incredible skill as a writer. He was a biracial man born of a white mother and black father in 1802. His father was one of Napoleon’s top generals…until they had a falling out during the Egypt campaign. (Any number of historians thought that Napoleon’s not listening to Gen. Dumas was one of his greater blunders in Egypt.) Although his father died in exile, young Alex got to encounter Napoleon as Napoleon changed horses while beating a hasty retreat from Waterloo.

Alexandre started writing as a young man, primarily for the stage. His early plays were often political and controversial. (France was undergoing several revolutions during his lifetime.) He didn’t really find success until he wrote a play about Henri III. Historical fiction was practically his invention. (Shakespeare mastered it on the stage, but Dumas really developed it into an art form in novels.) With great success, came great loves and travel adventures of his own. Ultimately, no matter how much money he made, he spent far more. He died heavily in debt and fairly poor.

This is a 1996 Mont Blanc Writers Series Alexandre Dumas fountain pen with the wrong signature on the cap and box.

Mont Blanc wisely chose to honor him in 1996 with one of its early limited edition writers series pens. The pen was handsomely trimmed in classical French style accents, such as a fleur de lis on its nib. Collectors especially love this pen because it features a significant mistake on the part of Mont Blanc. The company’s early releases of the pen featured not Alexandre’s signature but the signature of his son, Alexandre Dumas fils, who famously wrote “Camille.” The company scrambled to recall these pens and replace them with the right signature. As such, the wrong signature pens are worth more than most of the other writers series pens.

Controversy in Chicago Part II: Getting to Know Each Other

DISCLAIMER: Painting in broad brush strokes, it will be nearly impossible to describe all of the individual experiences, personalities, struggles, complaints and desires of veteran vendors and folks who are newer to pen collecting. In listening to the “New Pen Show Attendee Forum” at the Chicago Pen Show–and in many conversations since–these are the observations I have made in an effort to better foster understanding and friendship between pen lovers of all ages.

Depending on who you talk to at a pen show…and depending on their age…it isn’t all that uncommon to hear variations of the following statements:

  • “Young people never buy vintage. They only buy limited editions and cheap Asian junk.”
  • “The veteran vendors are a bunch of grumps.”
  • “New pen people are always breaking my pens.”
  • “I’m sick of veteran pen dealers always ripping me off.”

In addition to that, each group seems to find the other group anti-social, although each group is extremely social. One chats all the time online, and the other prefers talking more in person. Each seems out of touch with the other, and it is high time we all got to know each other better. With all of the technology we have, there isn’t a lot of pen love out there any more, and we should unite.

Without further ado, Newbies, meet the…

VETERAN VENDORS:
Without most of the veteran vendors you meet today at a pen show, we wouldn’t have a hobby, and we likely wouldn’t have many–if any–new fountain pens being made.

0800 National The LincolnPen collecting really got its start in the 1970s. The whole world had switched to ballpoints (there were no such things as rollerballs or gels), and everyone was convinced that no one was ever going back to fountain pens.

A group of younger people, almost entirely independent from one another at first, still loved the old fountain pens. They were drawn to them by their beautiful designs, superior writing qualities and curious filling systems.

The pens were plentiful and cheap. Seriously, guys have told me stories about finding Parker Duofolds for as cheap as a quarter at flea markets and in antique stores.

The more they bought, the more they got curious and became amateur historians. There was NO INTERNET. These guys had to track down vintage advertising, catalogs, former employees and corporate archives to find most of the information we can now find in 10 seconds online. They spent whole decades of their lives uncovering this information.

0119NThey also taught themselves and others how to restore vintage pens. One person even bought, restored and began using a rubber ink sac and diaphragm-making machine to keep supplying us the parts to keep restoring these pens.

Many vendors/collectors became obsessed with finding perfect models of every pen a certain company made. Imagine tracking down every color and size of each model pen a company such as Sheaffer or Parker made. Many of these guys have museum-quality collections, and they got much of them for under $20 a pen! (This is an important detail to save for the second half of the post.)(It also is important to note that most of them have spent hundreds, if not thousands, to acquire a single rare model for their collections, as well.) (Another important detail.) These collectors often consider themselves “completists.”

Eventually, the different collectors began to find each other and form pen shows, clubs and publications. Again, no internet, so these organizations grew slowly.

Collecting among these folks–for many but not all–became very competitive. Bragging rights were involved with cutting the cheapest deal and making the largest-margin deal. Bragging rights also were involved in finding the rarest pens, knowing the most about a particular subject and sometimes even conning a fellow/rival collector. Most of it was good-natured, but some people got to playing a little rough, too. There are a lot of good pen war stories out there, for those who are interested.

For those who enjoyed the competitive side of collecting, their core philosophy was something to the effect of: “It is up to the individual buyers to do their due diligence before purchasing a pen. If you don’t investigate the pen and/or do your research, it is your fault for handing over the money without negotiating a better deal.” They also will be the first to tell you that they’ve all been ripped off more than once.

0829 Mont Blanc 149I’m not here to state whether that is right or wrong. I’m not saying every veteran vendor is that way. In fact, I think a lot of them are much more consumer friendly than that. (Many veteran vendors are actually very eager to meet and teach new collectors some of what they have learned in the past 40 years.)  Mostly, I’m just trying to explain some of the bruises new collectors pick up at a pen show.

Further, it is very important to note that vintage vendors turned pen collecting into viable businesses. More than one-man shows, many of these businesses employed people and developed real operating costs. Demand and overhead contributed to the rising prices of pens.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, pen shows were drawing thousands of attendees from around the world. Before long, pen companies began taking notice of the rising demand for vintage fountain pens. In 1992, Mont Blanc released the now coveted Hemingway fountain pen. It was a monster hit with vintage collectors and drew renewed interest from modern pen users. Around the same time, Parker reissued the Gen. MacArthur Duofold, resurrecting the iconic model for the 4th time.

0585 Parker DuofoldAs the popularity of the hobby swelled, vintage pen prices ballooned. The internet and eBay made collecting much more accessible without the need for pen shows. Many of your veteran vendors are big eBay sellers, too. The hobby remained more vintage heavy until the Great Recession in 2008.

Everything went topsy turvy with the recession. Vintage prices crashed along with the stock market. Also, and very sadly, the folks who started the hobby in the 1970s began passing away. Pen makers the world over started producing fountain pens in high numbers. New ink colors were unleashed by the hundreds. New, younger collectors began putting a new face on pen collecting. For better or worse, many of the veteran vendors are having a harder and harder time recognizing the hobby and industry they started.

And thus, it is now time for the veteran vendors to meet the…

NEW GENERATION PEN COLLECTORS:
Young collectors are a lot like veteran collectors 30 and 40 years ago! They are drawn to the hobby by the beautiful designs, superior writing qualities and curious filling systems of fountain pens. They are hungry for more information about the pens and companies who make them. They socialize and congregate by creating new social media forums, blogs, podcasts and Youtube videos and channels.

0830 Visconti OperaNew generation pen collectors likely didn’t grow up using fountain pens. Fountain pens, whether vintage or modern, are still extremely exciting and fun writing instruments to use in their daily lives. They are just learning about the joys and fun to be had by writing with everything from extra-fine nibs to stubs to flexi-points.

Cursive writing hasn’t been taught in public schools in most cities for most of this new millennium. New generation collectors are fascinated by cursive handwriting and are often very eager to try their hand at classic Spencerian script.

They are diving into all of the various colors of ink available to see which ones they like best. They are making the most of some of the options not available to veteran collectors when the veterans were first getting into the hobby.

I have heard many veteran collectors sneer at the fact new generation collectors are users and not completists. This is a misguided sneering that I really want to squash.

As I stated earlier, veteran collectors had a very different economy to start collecting. Not only were vintage pens prevalent in “the wild” for really cheap prices. Wages back then kicked the asses of wages today.

0940NNew generation collectors are buying a lot of cheap Asian pens and Lamys because they are affordable and under $30. New generation collectors likely came out of college with $50,000 or more in debt. Modern housing often costs 50% of their paychecks. Jobs for 20 and 30-somethings are hard to get, and a lot of them are excited if they can get a job that pays at least $40k a year. Plus, many are getting married, starting families and juggling other traditional responsibilities.

Base-line vintage pens are prohibitively expensive to collect as a completist would. If you could buy a good used Parker 51 in 1975 for fifty cents, that same pen now likely goes for $60 to $80. If you want a green, blue, black, golden pearl, grey and burgundy Parker Vacumatic in the standard size, five of them will cost at least $85 a piece and the burgundy will get at least $150. That’s $575 all together. You can spend $2,000 easily to get their matching Maxima companions and another $400 for the demis. Toss in Shadow Waves and Toothbrushes…. Well, you get the idea.

Plus, there is a huge degree of competition from modern pen brands. Vanishing points, Pelikans, limited editions, inexpensive pens with unique, smooth nibs…there’s a lot out there to explore.

So, while new generation collectors aren’t completists, they are serious collectors. Frequently on a budget, they eagerly try a little bit of everything: needle-point extra fines, flexi wet noodles, stubs, vac fillers, limited editions, lever fillers and all of the other cool features that make up the pens we all love.

0979 Omas MarconiOn my site and at my tables at pen shows, I find that the new collectors are very curious about the vintage pens, but they are a little gun shy. They’ve likely seen and read a lot about them, but they have never seen them in the flesh or tried them. Many are a little nervous to admit that they don’t know much but want to learn, so I make sure to give them basic rundowns of the pens, which I put in their hands and let them try. As expected, they often love the vintage and want to explore more. So if you’re a veteran vendor, don’t be afraid to talk to the young’uns and share a little of what you know and let them try the greatness of vintage.

Finally, it is important to note the art of the deal.

New generation collectors have lived their entire lives in a price-posted-is-price-paid economy. Even many car dealerships today don’t negotiate car deals. The older generations hated this enough to kill these type of sales in most retail environments. Plus, the internet makes it impossible to negotiate a price but EASY to comparison shop. It is safe to say that most new generation pen collectors go into pen shows expecting honest, competitive pricing on the merchandise and no-hassle honest deals. Many have done their homework and won’t even deal with somebody with seemingly inflated prices. As users, many new generation collectors expect the pens they buy to work, and if you don’t inform them upfront that the pen is unrestored, it is reasonable for them to feel ripped off, especially if you won’t refund the money once they discover this issue.

It can be argued a pen show is a buyer-beware environment, but forget about repeat business if you run your business this way. Now if you are the type of vendor with 500+ pens on your table, it is safe to say you might not know which pens are restored. Newbies won’t fault you for that, as long as you go over the pen with them to make sure it is what they want. Besides, if you have that many pens, if that pen turns out to be something they don’t want…you’ll likely have another they do. Build trust with them, and they’ll bring their friends to buy more. As simplistic as it sounds, it really boils down to treating one another with fairness and respect.

God knows I’ve gone on long enough for one post, but I hope that I’ve expressed many sentiments veteran vendors and new generation collectors feel. I hope this opens up some more discussion and tears down a few barriers between the two sides of this same pen collecting coin. We’ve got far more in common than we seem to know.