A friend of mine just put his Pelikan Ocean Swirl up for sale (incidentally, he originally bought it from me). I raised my eyebrows: this was truly a grail for him. I remember his joy, his gratitude, his pride when he acquired it.
And now to sell it — a bold move. I started to question his motives. Why sell this pen in particular of all the pens he owns? Is he in desperate need of money? Is he simply leveraging his greatest pen assets for an even higher grail? Or has he looked deep inside and realised, with sinking dread, this didn’t change my life the way I expected it would?
I don’t have much to add to the overall analysis of the term ‘grail pen’, or its alternatives (my post on ‘exit pens’ might be a good place to start). I still use the word, and I still find it useful for summing up how the pens we want make us feel. The hunt, the desire, the obsession, can be intoxicating.
But with any intoxication there’s always a hangover. Many times I have looked in my pen tray keenly aware that I’ve overextended my budget, or felt that I have too many pens, too much duplication, too many impulse purchases… or with a general nagging sense of disquiet that things aren’t all they cracked up to be. That’s when I try to work out which pens to sell.
The question is easy: which of these pens do I really love?
The answer is not as easy as you might expect.
Often, truth be told, I can’t work out my motivations for wanting to keep any particular pen: the mess of associations and expectations is too tangled. And what’s more, I don’t trust my assessments to be true and unsullied.
What I struggle with is things like this:
The Montblanc Agatha Christie is of course an excellent pen, but it writes the same as a much cheaper 146 of the same vintage. I don’t find myself writing with it much and the nib isn’t to my current tastes. So what makes it ‘special’ and worth taking up one of my slots?
The immediate answer is that it has sentimental attachment for me as a future inheritance for my eldest daughter (also called Agatha). This is such a compelling concept that more than a dozen people have emailed me in the past month to support it.
But dig a little deeper: am I inventing this heritage/inheritance story because the idea appeals to me, because that’s the kind of thing you get marketed (eg “you never really own a Patek Philippe”)? Am I buying in to the lazy commercial narrative of inheritance to help calm my fears of getting older? Am I assuaging my guilt about not giving my kids enough of my time by promising to give them things instead? My daughter doesn’t care about fountain pens — am I forcing her to caretake a mass-produced piece of plastic for the rest of her life, just to fit into my image? That seems awfully egotistical of me.
Would I be better off selling it and using the money on a family holiday to make new memories and strengthen my relationship with my daughter? Or, as many have suggested, keep the pen until it has appreciated in value still further? (Never mind that there are 30,000 of these sticks of plastic out there).
Or another current case: do I really love the look of exotic materials, such as arco (my ASC Gladiatore Medio). Dig deeper: is part of the reason I own these exotic materials simply to appeal to the folks on Instagram? Will I not be taken seriously as a pen collector if I don’t own any celluloid? Do I just want to be judged as a person with great taste by the limited audience who will recognise arco when they see it? These motivations are not great evils, but surely I can aspire to be more than just a poseur. At this rate I’ll be doing Rolex wrist-rolls on TikTok.
Speaking of Rolex and its insane market bubble, you may start to notice a touch of the familiar FOMO creeping in to these decisions too: am I worried that the prices will continue to rise and I’ll lose out? (Arco Oldwins are trading at 3k now; I passed on one at £1,200 and feel like a fool). The same goes for any hyped limited edition (such as the Ocean Swirl). Does it really speak to me, or am I just afraid that I won’t be able to find another one if I sell it then change my mind? Do I actually like the pen, or do I like being able to show off that I have something that others don’t, in our performative status-driven culture?
Imagine a bottle of wine: is tasting it enough to decide if you like it? Or do you need to know that it’s old, rare, expensive, prestigious to enjoy it? Does knowing that a wine is all those things increase your level of enjoyment? All the research says it does. We use proxy indicators of quality to assess things, and there’s no more potent indicator than price. If something is priced high, we assume it must be better than something priced low. We can’t help ourselves.
It’s the same with pens. If we’re told that this pen took months of urushi work instead of being cast plastic, do we like it more? If we find it has a gold nib, do we believe it to write better than a steel one? If we know it’s expensive, do we believe it to be better quality? The honest answer to all of these questions is yes. It’s why every pen in my tray has a gold nib, even though I’ve written with plenty of wonderful steel nibs.
How am I meant to rationally assess my love of a pen when I know I’m being bamboozled by the same psychological tricks I fall for when drinking a glass of expensive wine?
Can there be an objective assessment in a human communal activity?
Whenever I do my collection soul-searching, these kinds of issues of motivation pop up. Essentially they boil down to whether I have this pen because of the enjoyment it gives me, alone in a dark room at my desk, or because of externally imposed reactions: fear of missing out, pride of showing off, and so on.
And then it becomes painfully clear that for me as a collector, as part of a community, those externalities are a big part of why I’m here. I feel proud when people like my collection (can you be proud of something and not want to show it off to someone?). I get a thrill when I bag a limited edition that will surely sell out, because who doesn’t like winning? I enjoy sharing my expertise (expertise I’ve mostly accumulated by buying and selling lots of pens), because who doesn’t like feeling valued by others? If I was dumped on a desert island with no internet access, and purely writing my journal for me, I don’t think urushi and arco would be so important to me.
It’s almost impossible for me to excise a single pen from this web and decide whether it’s adding value to my life. It’s all about perspectives and the stories we tell ourselves.
In fact, the only reliable indicator I’ve found is one that my friend with the Ocean Swirl used in his ‘for sale’ listing. “I’ve not written with it for a year”. If you find a pen looks great, gets lots of likes on Instagram, makes you feel like an aesthete, wins at all those social factors… but you still pass over it day after day when picking a pen to actually write with? That’s your subconscious telling you something important in a very private moment. Will you listen to it?