COLUMN: Decorative pen fetches a pretty penny

Dunhill Namiki Maki-e lacquer fountain pen sold for �2,900.
Dunhill Namiki Maki-e lacquer fountain pen sold for �2,900.

Pens may not leap to the forefront of your mind when considering antiques and collectables, but artistic examples can fetch impressive prices.

For example, a 1930s original Dunhill Namiki Maki-e lacquer fountain pen made £2,900 in a decorative arts auction at Hansons.

Pens like this are sought after by collectors of writing equipment. They are arguably both a work of art and a superlative personal writing instrument.

The Maki-e lacquered style is individual with the decoration built up over multiple layers using gold dust, mother of pearl, metal oxides and pigment. This one featured a Maki-e lacquer decoration to barrel and cap with raised and gilt leaf and praying mantis decoration.

Company founder Ryosuki Namiki was born in 1880 and started a small factory in 1915 close to his home in Tokyo. In 1918, he was joined by Masao Wada who financed the production of highly individual pens featuring the traditional art of Maki-e using a lacquer made from the Urushi tree.

In 1919, the Namiki Pen Company was formed, becoming a division of the Pilot Pen Company in 1923. The pens used Maki-e lacquer over a base material that was a hard rubber or ‘ebonite’ but with the addition of lacquer to the constituents giving a more durable, blacker and glossier surface than the hard rubbers used by European and American pen makers. This was Mr Namiki’s invention which he called ‘Laccanite’.Masao Wada’s younger brother, Setsuji, opened a branch of the company in London and quickly numbered Tiffany, Cartier and Asprey among its retailers. In 1927, Alfred H Dunhill negotiated an agency to sell the pens in France.

Alfred Dunhill started selling motor accessories in 1907 but, in an effort to diversify, their Paris-based manager Clement Court made contact with Namiki.

In 1930 Dunhill signed an agreement to use the name Dunhill-Namiki and by 1931 they were selling across Europe and the USA.

Brilliant lacquer master Gonroku Matsuda was hired and put together a team of Maki-e artists to produce a range of oriental designs on pens of different sizes.

Lacquering comes in four qualities - Grade A is lacquered all over and signed by the artist taking six weeks and, perhaps, 230 different operations; Grade B is heavily lacquered but not completely; Grade C is less elaborate and Grade D is close to undecorated black.

Inevitably, the Second World War affected the supply of materials and sales but Pilot has produced pens ever since.

It got into financial difficulties in 1968 but recovered and by 1984 the company was producing Maki-e models followed by Dunhill Namiki in 1995. Both reproduced the designs of the 1930s using traditional skills. These pens can still be bought new, are wonderful examples of the Maki-e art and highly sought after.

Hansons is inviting fine pens for its specialist decorative arts auction on February 21. Entries close February 2.

Expert John Keightley is holding a valuation day for pens and other examples of decorative arts on Friday, January 12, from 10am to 1pm at Hansons in Heage Lane, Etwall. Email jkeightley@hansonsauctioneers.co.uk or call 01283 733988 to find out more.