August 02, 2015

Cliff & Judy Lawrence

[Posted on L&P on Sept 2, 2008.]
        As promised, here’s something more on Cliff & Judy Lawrence.  I originally found this message posted by Rob Astyk on Jan 25, 2005 in a thread with the title “Why are we so alone?  A discussion of the past and future” on the Fountain Pen Network.  I am repeating a portion of it here essentially as written, except for corrections of spelling and grammar.  It starts on a cynical note, but it ends on a note of conciliation about using the Web as a collaborative forum for creating something by group effort.

        Rob wrote, “Let me tell you a little of the history of this hobby as I know it.  Pen collecting began about forty to forty-five years ago as a lonely pursuit of some few folks who liked pens and accumulated them.  But pens, up through the mid-1980’s, had almost no open market value.  Antique dealers, and I’m using that term loosely, got pens as the freebies when they bought old desks or jewelry boxes or that box of junk on the corner of the table that had all the “smalls” in it at the garage sale.  Pens were “found money” in that whatever they brought in was profit for the dealer who’d actually bought some other thing with which the pens were simply a tag-along.  That’s why I could collect a couple of thousand pens with an average price of under $5.00 a piece up through 1987.
        “At the same time, pens had value to other collectors.  Even in the late 1970’s collectors had a sense that certain pens were unusual or rare.  Thus, one might find a pre-1920 overlay, eyedropper Parker for a dollar or two and turn it around within the community for several hundred dollars.  It was far better than the stock market.
        “All collectors and dealers were worried that this secret of theirs would get out.  There weren’t any pen shows to speak of and the one and only publication was Cliff Lawrence’s Pen Fancier’s Newsletter, later Pen Fancier’s Magazine.
        “When I went to Brimfield in the early 1980’s, I would occasionally run into pen collectors.  I can honestly say that the only folks who ever stopped to chat with me were Stuart Schneider and his, then, wife Roberta Etter.  The usual scenario when I met another collector, one of whom was the late and much lamented Frank Dubiel, was that I’d introduce myself, offer my hand, the other person would be overcome by this odd expression as if I’d just offered him a poisonous snake, mumble something not necessarily his name and race away.  Off the other collector would run, and in those days no one knew my politics.  ;-)
        “The point is that there was this veil of secrecy that surrounded the hobby.  Some were making substantial money off of fountain pens.  Others figured that they could make substantial money.  And some of us just loved the things and wanted to see as many variants as we could.  In any event, I used to tell people who asked about other collectors that there were long-dead people who were more gregarious than pen collectors.
        “The hobby was, however, changing.  In 1980, Stuart Schneider launched the Fountain Pen Exchange newsletter that complimented and competed with Cliff’s PFC publications.  Pen Clubs were informally forming and Glenn Bowen wrote his book, and later launched Pen World.  Actual pen shows began to happen in large cities.  The PCA grew out of the Southern California Club.  The hobby was becoming more public.  The secret was out.
        “But you must know that not everyone was happy with this opening up.  Cliff Lawrence had tried to squelch the Fountain Pen Exchange.  Some collector-dealers were very nasty to others in the hobby for actually, or potentially, beating them to some killing on a great pen.  Some well-heeled collectors thought of the pen collecting hobby as “their” hobby.  It existed for them, primarily so that those few might profit from it.  Cliff could not stop the growth of the hobby beyond his control, but his early grasp has served as a kind of paradigm for most, certainly not all, of the relatively small group that controls shows, and publications, and some very lucrative side-lines like authentication for auction houses.
        “The next stage in this hobby’s development occurred while I had taken myself mostly out of serious collecting from 1988 to 1998.  It’s a stage that I only know from hearsay.  What I understand is that there was a great pen “bubble” in the early 1990’s when the silent little men scurrying from stall to flea market stall cashed in their acquisitions.  Prices soared.  Not coincidentally Ebay began to make its mark on the world at about the same time.
    “When I decided to get back into pen collecting in a serious way in 1999, I avoided Ebay because I had, neither money to spend, nor a personal computer of my own.  Two years later when I broke down and bought a PC, I found a hobby transformed.  There were Fora for pen collectors.  There were people from all professions, backgrounds, races, and ethnicities in this wonderful hobby, and collectors salted around the world.  Moreover, they were all in contact with one another via the Internet.
        “Still there is a clique that tries to maintain control of a hobby that’s plainly out-grown their grasp.  If you want real information on the esoterica of pen collecting, you have to go to a small cadre of individuals who may or may not respond.  Also, no one has settled on standards for the hobby yet.  We have the PCA, but it does not have the authority that the American Philatelic Society, for example, has over stamp collecting.  There are no standards for terminology, evaluation, and grading of pens, or for dealer conduct.  We lack those things because they are not in the interest of an old guard that still views the hobby as a personal profit centre.  [To this end, Roger Wooten started Topic 278 on L&P in the “Work Ethics” forum, “Repair and Restoration Ethics, What constitutes going too far?”, where he proposed a new set of rules that he christened “GARM, Generally Accepted Restoration Methods”, but saying further “you can feel free to name it anything you like”.  On Jan 5, 2018, Roger sent me this note, “I’m a CPA, and [the name] was in line with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, so that’s where it came from”.  In a later topic in the “Work Ethics” forum on L&P
, Topic 327, Rob started a thread titled “Collector Code, code of ethics for pen collectors, includes GARM disclaimer”, and ran with the ball.  I took it into another direction in a thread titled “GARR, Generally Accepted Research Rules”, Topic 1980.]
        “We’re in a transition phase right now.  At some point the clamour for standards will outweigh personal greed.  The hobby will establish regular standards and a code of conduct for dealers and repairers.  Some “seal”, perhaps the PCA’s, perhaps not, will become the emblem of trust and excellence that we need, and those who are wary of jumping into the current atmosphere will finally dare to join in, and pen collecting will have its place beside book collecting, and cutlery, and all the other hobbies.
        “Until then, the question might better be how we can organize to bring our hobby into the mainstream sooner rather than later.”
        [Added on Aug 26, 2010.  Here’s the rest of the thread on FPN,
“Why are we so alone?”, with Rob’s message, sadly, “removed”.]

        Pavlo Shevelo wrote, “Oh, my goodness!  Thank you indeed for posting this”.

        David Nishimura wrote, “Rob said that the next stage in this hobby was from 1988 to 1998.  This is precisely the time when I became involved in the vintage pen scene.  The money that came into the field came from a few sources.  One major source was Italy, where the economy was booming and consumerism was going wild.  For a period of several years, vintage pens could be bought at an American pen show and immediately resold for two or three times the price to Italian pen shop owners, who would in turn make their markups.  This came to a crashing halt around 1995 or so, though some of the slack was taken up by buying from other countries—notably Spain, Portugal, and Brazil.
        “The other big change that hit at the end of the ’80s was the entry of the watch dealers into pens.  Give them credit—they saw objects that were beautiful, uncommon, and undervalued, and they put up serious money for them.  For many, it was a natural lateral move, since pens could be bought alongside the watches and jewelry they were already purchasing and advertising for.  These watch dealers turned pen dealers turned up some fantastic pens, and did every bit as much to change the pen collecting scene as the foreign buyers.  By the mid-90s, however, they were pretty much all gone; it had been profitable for a while, but the easy money was made and prices were dropping.
        “Note that Rob’s chronology as regards Ebay is a little confused here.  Prices peaked and the bubble burst years before Ebay came on the scene.
        “I don’t know whether Rob still feels quite the same way now about ‘a clique that tries to maintain control of a hobby’, and ‘an old guard’.  To my mind, the notion of such a conspiracy is laughable.  There is certainly a group of veteran collectors who have great stuff and deep knowledge; they have always been very open with me, even back when I was a 20-something grad student with more enthusiasm than capital.  Rob is, by his own admission, a rather abrasive personality, so if he’s alienated some of those veteran collectors over the years, I don’t think it’s quite fair to put all the blame on them.  And it is particularly mistaken to excoriate this old guard as being motivated by profit.  I cannot think of one that does any significant selling, and most are now acquiring selectively and quite seldom.”

        And I wrote, “Be that as it may, conspiracy or not, it still makes for a good story from one person’s point of view.  I do know that around 1994-96 when the first websites came online, Glen Bowen got together with a few of the members of his board of directors of Pen World, who were also big-time collectors at the time, and they decided that they would not allow the publication of any personal, or commercial ads in Pen World that had website URLs, or email addresses in them, trying to stem the tide of communication outside their control in the same feckless way that Cliff tried to limit backchannel correspondence and dealing between his PFC members.  Glen quickly had to change the policy because his advertisers would have none of that.  Still, to this day it’s almost impossible to find a price tag on any of the pens advertized, or talked about in Pen World.  I shouldn’t make such sweeping, universal statements, though, because someone will dig out some obscure exceptions to the rule of “no price tags” just to prove me wrong.
  Well, I guess if you have to ask how much it costs, then you can’t afford it.

        David Nishimura wrote, “Interesting thing is that Cliff Lawrence contributed in no small measure to the friction between pen collectors and general antiques dealers.  His 1992 guidebook, in particular, listed prices for nearly all the pens illustrated that were way above current retail levels.  This book was probably the first to get widely distributed among the US antiques trade, so many dealers innocently used it as a yardstick for pricing their own pens, only to find pen collectors scoffing and offering what seemed ludicrously low sums instead.  Nor were all the dealers using the book naive.  Many, if not most, were well aware of the unreliability of price guides, and so assumed that expecting to get half the listed price would be reasonable.  In this case however, one quarter to one fifth was often more like it.  I remember talking to an antiques shop owner back in that era who told me that he had been getting a lot of pens in, and so called Cliff Lawrence to ask what percentage of the guidebook value he’d pay.  Expecting to hear something like a half or a third, he told me he was taken aback to be told 20%!”

        Pavlo Shevelo wrote that Rob’s post, even though it was “much later than when Cliff was, kinda, the ruling king, or at least tried to be, and taking into account that ‘clique’ doesn’t mean ‘conspiracy’, Rob’s point might not appear to be so ‘laughable’”.

        David Nishimura wrote, “Sorry, I stand by what I wrote.  Rob has some very strong opinions about how the world should work.  There are others who see things differently—including quite a few prominent veteran collectors.  That they disagree with Rob doesn’t make them either conspirators, or even a clique—however much Rob may believe that only malicious intent could possibly explain their failure to see things his way.
        “Yes, some of these veterans have run shows heavy-handedly.  Many have not been overly willing to hand over the hard-won fruit of their research and experience to those who rubbed them the wrong way.  But this is hardly the stuff of totalitarianism.  In fact, if anybody wants to “control the hobby” nowadays, it’s someone like Rob, with his calls for a powerful governing body setting uniform standards for grading, classification, and methods of restoration.”

        Rob Astyk wrote, “I suppose that you could shoehorn my calls for standards and standard terminology into a specious pejorative like “an attempt to control the hobby”, but I think that Pavlo has seen the reality of what I suggest.  I’m the last person who wants to control anything.  But I do believe that the complexities of this hobby are many and great enough already without newcomers having to decide whether David’s grading of a pen is the same as Rob Morrison’s, or Richard Binder’s, or Bob Novak’s.  What I would like to see are some simple, regular, and consistent standards.  And, honestly, David, the only people discomforted by a consistent “language” for referring to the various aspects of this hobby are people who profit from the prevailing confusion.
        “If I were trying to control anything, I’m sure doing a piss-poor job of it.  I don’t see any progress on standards of any kind.  Besides, the whole point of standards is democratization of the hobby.  Making pen collecting more regularized makes it more intelligible.  Making it more intelligible makes it easier for newcomers to the hobby to get their bearings.  If that’s a bad idea, then I don’t know who’s being more offensive.
        “I have offered suggestions about how standards could be enforced so that they become universal.  People claim that it’s impossible to set standards across the hobby.  I’ve argued that it’s not impossible.  Enforcement is necessary until those standards gain sufficient weight and universality to enforce themselves.
        “As for my statement about people controlling the hobby, I never thought that they were completely effective.  As you point out, David, in a hobby as broad and diverse as pen collecting, iron control is just not possible.  On the other hand, as one reaches more rarified levels of collecting, the number of people involved gets ever smaller, and the pens involved increasingly rare.  At those levels a relatively small group of people can exert a lot of control.  Is it so impossible that some of that might be going on?
        “As for being “abrasive”, I plead guilty in the first degree.  As I’ve said before, stating an opinion and arguing for it will offend some.  I consider that the inevitable result of stating the opinion in the first place.  I’d rather be known as abrasive and honest than pleasant and duplicitous any day.  That said, even I think I carry the abrasion too far sometimes, but that’s a different story.
        “This is a very interesting conversation from which I’ve tried to absent myself to allow it to develop on its own, but I just can’t allow the charge of “control” to go unanswered.”

        Claes Lindblad wrote, “Sigh.  Of course we need some kind of definition(s).  We cannot even agree on what a “collector” is.
        “Some like to accumulate (he who has most X when he dies wins).
        “Some love to buy every Limited Edition, manufactured in 4810 copies per country, put them into the bank and believe to Become Rich when they sell them in a year or so.
        “Some are interested in certain brands, technical developments, filling systems, special nibs, etcetera.
        “Some want their fountain pens to work.  You’d be surprised to hear how many present day pens do not work properly.
        “Some solely look for Waterman 53s. :-)
        “And so on.  And all are collectors.  Or aren’t they?  Would proper definitions help?  Those belonging to one faction rarely stand those adhering to other groups, so what good would it do to put labels on them?

        David Nishimura wrote, “We are treading on sensitive ground here, and praise is warranted all around for the forbearance shown so far.  I, too, like to be able to call things as I see them, with no offence intended or taken—but with the calling done with sensitivity and sympathy.  Lest anyone doubt it, I think we can aver that we share more than we differ in our goals, however much we may differ in our opinions on how best to get there.  I will say, however, that I agree with the following quote, ‘What I would like to see are some simple, regular, and consistent standards. And the only people discomforted by a consistent language for referring to the various aspects of this hobby are people who profit from the prevailing confusion’.
        “Why do you persist in believing that the only reason anyone might disagree with your ideas is greed?  Uniformity isn’t always optimal or desirable.  Your castigation of your opponents echoes that of the proponents of more government surveillance, who claim that only those who have something to hide could possibly object.  The grading system that I use is the best I’ve been able to come up with.  Others have come up with other systems, some wildly impractical.  I don’t want to have a bunch of armchair authorities impose their grading system on me, nor do I want to impose my system on anyone else.  Is this a desire to profit from confusion?  No, it is a very reasonable desire to be left alone—and to stick with the good enough, rather than go chasing after the perfect.  Things can be improved.  It is best done from the bottom up, though, and through persuasion, not compulsion.
        “As for “democratization of the hobby”, not everyone likes democratization imposed upon them.  The EU has given us some good illustrations of how and why this happens.  Paradoxically, if one were to look at pen collecting primarily as a business, then standardization and regularization might make sense.  Most participants, however, look upon it as something more, perhaps a place to explore, to discover, to socialize.  Pen collecting is a culture—and more often than not, attempts to standardize matters cultural do not turn out well.
        “And as for making pen collecting “more intelligible for newcomers to the hobby”, is the imposition of compulsory standards the only, or even the best way to make pen collecting intelligible?  Might I suggest that my website, my publications, and my contributions to online discussions have all been directed to precisely that end, albeit by different means?  It’s as if you were one of those reformers campaigning fervently for simplification and rationalization of the English language, while I’ve chosen to spend my efforts teaching people to read.”

        And John Chapman wrote, “While I could opine a few answers to the questions David raises here, I am afraid it has the potential to poison a very interesting thread about the history of pen collecting.  Might I suggest that some of the back-and-forth on the subject of standards, control of hobby, etc., be moved to its own thread, in a way that does not strip out what is relevant to the core subject matter here?  Understanding the hobby requires understanding the way that personalities and agendas have influenced its growth, and I wouldn’t want to see that removed, but the current argument detracts from the rest.”

        And I wrote, “Thanks, John.  Now, to get back to pen history, sort of”.

   George Kovalenko.