Since there’s a good chance that people reading this post, about buying your first vintage fountain pen, will want to purchase a Parker 51, I thought I’d write a separate post with a few extra tips on how to get a good, working Parker 51 at a decent price.
So, one of these pens costs upwards of $400 and the other can be purchased for closer to $40. Which is which?
This is one of the dilemmas facing a new Parker 51 buyer: you’ve heard that this is a great vintage pen, but you can’t make heads or tails of its market value. How do you know what to buy and that you aren’t being ripped off?
Here are a few things worth knowing, if you want to buy a Parker 51 that you actually intend to use. If you’re looking to buy a pen to collect, this is not the guide for you. I’m assuming that you want a good, writing pen that will last you for years and won’t break the bank.
- Check if the pen is a vacumatic or an aerometric Parker 51. You can either ask the seller, or take a quick glance at the pen body. If there’s a visible seam near the end of the pen, its a vacumatic. You want an aerometric, because they’re cheaper, easier to use and clean, and generally have less issues requiring repair than their earlier counterparts. Aerometric Parker 51 have a filling system that looks like a modern squeeze converter: a sack covered in a metal sleeve. The sack is transparent when the pen is brand new, but 95% of the time you’ll see sacks that are discoloured to a black, opaque state. That doesn’t affect the workings of the pen, but the more transparent the sack is the higher the pen’s price will be. You don’t need a pen with a clear sack to enjoy your 51. Just press the sack to check that it’s still supple (it usually will be. The sacks aren’t rubber so they don’t crumble with age), and remember: you’ll need 4-5 presses to fill the pen properly.
- Most of the value of a Parker 51 pen lies in the cap. I know, that sounds weird, but since the body has no markings (usually), there’s really note much else that can differentiate between one Parker 51 and another (we’ll get to the colours later, I promise). Gold, gold-filled, coin silver and sterling silver caps will make the price of the pen skyrocket. Telling the gold apart from the Lustraloy (regular) caps is easy, but don’t worry, you won’t get any silver capped 51 for less than $150, so that’s how you can tell even if you don’t want to ask the dealer. But by all means, ask the dealer. Sterling silver caps are stamped, as are the gold ones. The gold filled caps are merely marked as gold filled, and if your heart is set on them they aren’t wildly expensive usually (they actually cost less than a modern Edison or Franklin Christoph pen, so long as you’re going for an aerometric in a common colour).
- Caps that are even slightly dinged or nicked, visibly scratched or have lost the frosted lustre in their Lustraloy also seriously devalue the price of the pen. A brand new Lustraloy cap has a frosted finish and shiny bands on the top and bottom. The pen in the middle of this photo is NOS, and you can see that it looks different than its well worn neighbour to the right (the black pen). Gold filled and gold caps are usually dinged in some way if they were used, and this is the case of the demi Parker below (the grey one). Needless to say, the state of the cap doesn’t affect the writing experience with the pen, so you can get 51s for a song if you’re willing to go with a common coloured pen with a Lustraloy cap that’s seen some wear. It doesn’t even have to be dinged – just the existence of significant micro-scratches is enough.
- In order of rarity the common Parker 51 colours are: Black, Navy Blue, Grey, Burgundy, Teal. None of these colours are rare, and none of them should raise the price of the pen.
- If the pen is NOS or stickered and sold as almost NOS, walk away. That significantly raises the price for a pen that’s meant to be looked at, not used.
- All Parker 51s use a slip cap mechanism. That means that oftentimes a well used pen will have scratches, abrasions and visible scuffing on the section (the part of the pen above the band, near the nib). That also devalues the pen, but like other cosmetic flaws it does nothing to affect its writing capability.
- So what does affect the Parker 51’s writing capability? The tipping material. The thing you absolutely must check before buying a Parker 51 that you intend to write with is how much tipping material it has left. This may be a little tricky, because in finer 51 nibs you may not see how much tipping material there is on first glance. The trick is to look at the pen nib not from the side, but from below. Look at this 51 pen nib for example. Without a loupe it’s difficult to see from the side how much tipping material is left on it:
The answer is to flip the pen and look at the flip side of the nib. The tipping material looks like a shiny dot on the tip of the nib. If there’s no shiny dot and you just see the gold nib, the tipping material is gone. You’ll also feel it immediately when writing, as the pen will drag over the paper instead of floating on it, and may even be scratchy. Parker 51 nibs don’t get misaligned very often, so a scratchy nib usually means the tipping material is gone.
- Parker 51 pens have gold nibs, unless they’re Parker 51 Specials, in which case they have steel nibs, shiny caps and a black jewel on top. I personally am not a fan of the 51 Special, but if you are, they’re usually an inexpensive way to get into your first vintage fountain pen.
- There are two lengths of pen body, the full size Parker 51 and the shorter Parker 51 demi. I don’t recommend buying the demi because they’re too small for even my tiny hands to use with comfort (without posting), and they tend to cost more because there were less of them made.
- As usual, personalization of any kind on the pen body or cap makes the price of the pen severely drop.
Bottom line: you can get a phenomenal gold nibbed pen in a beautiful Jetson design for less than $100 if you know what not to pay for. Now can you tell which pen is the Plum?