Restoration or Conservation?

For someone to say that they restore fountain pens seems a simple enough statement. It isn’t, though. There are two views of what should be done with valuable old things and there’s a whole spectrum of views in between. The two operative words are restoration and conservation.

Conservation has a variety of meanings as does restoration but I suppose its simplest definition would be along the lines of doing no more than is necessary to ensure the item remains stable in its current state.

How do we define restoration of pens? At one end there is the restorer whose intention is to return the pen to its condition when new using whatever means available. At the other end there is the restorer who sees the pen in its current state as a historical document, with its wear and scratches as a record of its “life”.

My own view of restoration lies toward the latter definition which shares some of the aims of conservation. That can be taken too far, of course. In reality the ageing and damage a pen has sustained is not history, or at least not a history we can read and understand. It’s more like a record of its bumps and scratches. Do they have any value? Maybe. Perhaps they have a negative value. Removing all the marks of a pen’s past presents a fake view of its age. We don’t expect eighty-year-old people to look like twenty-year-olds. I would say the same is true of vintage pens.

What I do to each pen is determined by its condition when I receive it. In general I return the pen to good working condition and, as far as is reasonable, to a pleasing appearance. I don’t remove every last scratch, I don’t remove personalisations , I don’t re-black and I don’t re-plate.

Years ago I saw all of this in an ethical light. I believed it was unethical to re-black faded hard rubber pens because it was misleading the customer. Polishing off every scratch and re-plating all metal trim to return an old pen to a false picture of its original state seemed equally reprehensible to me.

I’m older now and, if not necessarily wiser, I’m at least less condemnatory of the practices of some other restorers. In eBay, particularly, I see three or four “restore as new” sellers of old pens. That the job they do is appreciated by a proportion of the old pen market is shown by the number of bids they get and the eventual price paid for each pen. Good luck to them, I say, and I even admire the skill with which they make old look new.

I no longer feel I’m taking the moral or ethical high ground as a conservative restorer. In actuality I turn out pens the way I like them. The SF230 I’m drafting this with has black hard rubber faded to a pleasing rich chocolate brown. The plating on the barrel and cap bands is reasonably good but the lever is pitted. Though it takes a good shine – brighter with all the handling – there are the minor scratches of ninety years of use and the barrel imprint is shallow but legible. It isn’t at all like the year-old Waterman Carene also on my desk and that’s entirely as it should be.

The wear on my SF230 isn’t history. History is something written and read. My pen shows that it was worked hard and probably loved by its first owner. I know, from actual history, that this pen was probably in use during the slump of the thirties followed by Hitler’s war. Maybe it continued in use thereafter and maybe it lay in a drawer. These things – for me – give this pen a richness of association that my Carene doesn’t have. Not yet, and not for a few decades. The SF230 is an old and valuable thing and much of that value, for me, comes from those signs of age and the times during which it was used.

I make sure each pen does what it was originally intended for: write well. I think my sales say that restorers like me also meet with the approval of a segment of the old pen market.

9 thoughts on “Restoration or Conservation?

  1. Interesting and stimulating comments, Deb.
    William Morris got the ball rolling on this question: he stood firmly for preservation, in contrast to the furniture and antiques trades preferred’ ‘full restoration.’ My preference is ‘good working order and presentable’.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. My bugbear is an over polished vintage pen, they somehow just don’t look right. It occurs to me that the restorer should leave it up to the final owner if they want to keep on polishing. It would take years of use to remove that over polished look so why do something effectively irreversible?

      1. Motor-driven polishers! Like power tools for the home handyman–an expensive way to ruin a piece very, very quickly

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