Friday, October 24, 2014

Testing for Idiots . . . And The Results Came Back Positive

I know the title of this article is a bit harsh, but I’m still mad about this one. The story began when this popped up in an online auction a few months ago:

"Pop" is a great word to use – the artistry that went into making this is simply breathtaking. This one is a combo, and that band around the middle is the slide that advances the nib. There wasn’t a nib in this one, but I’ll find one eventually.

The pencil part of this is interesting. To advance the pencil from the case, you pull back the extender, twist it to engage the pencil mechanism, and push it forward partway. You can’t have the extender all the way out while the pencil is engaged. The patent for this odd way of doing things is imprinted on the extender:

December 19, 1871 refers to patent number 122,047, issued to Thomas Flynn and Joseph Monaghan:

The Monaghan name is interesting. Edward Todd & Co. was formed in 1871, the very year this patent was issued, succeeding to the firm of Kurtz & Monaghan (according to David L. Moak’s book on Mabie Todd & Co., Mabie in America).   I believe Moak, since his research was based on contemporary business directories – Edward Todd’s obituary, however, placed the foundation of Edward Todd & Co. a year later, in 1872:

We’ll pause for a minute here. If you are content to have seen a neat pencil and learned a little about its history, you can skip the rest of this article. Here’s where we get to the idiot part.

A string of bad experiences has taught me to read online auction descriptions very carefully, particularly when statements are made concerning a pencil’s possible gold content. It’s easy to detect sellers who know a piece isn’t solid gold, yet who are being deliberately vague about the issue in the hopes that someone will assume there’s gold in them thar pencils. This particular seller was asking a price somewhere between what I’d expect to pay for a gold filled example and a solid gold one, and he or she was implying in the listing that it might be gold without coming out and saying it.

This led me to ask whether the pencil had been tested for gold, and it wasn’t because I cared what the content was – the historical significance of the artifact was enough to interest me. What I was worried about at this point in the conversation was how the pencil had been tested -- on the one hand, there's the responsible way, and on the other, there's the rape-and-pillage strip-mining method.

The responsible way to determine whether something is gold filled or solid gold is to examine it closely with a loupe, looking for any traces of wear on the high points that would reveal a base metal underneath. Nearly every time, if it’s gold filled you’ll find some place on the item where just a tiny bit of brass shows through. If you can’t find any evidence of brassing, it might be gold, and with experience, you’ll be able to tell when something is a little heavier than you expect.

What unfortunately happens with many of these Victorian pieces when they fall into the hands of an unscrupulous person is that they will "test" for gold by filing a groove to see if there’s base metal underneath – severely diminishing the value of the piece as a collectible item in the process. In polite circles, these file marks are called "assayer’s marks." I think "scars from a greedy bastard with no respect for historical artifacts" is closer to the truth.

I asked the seller whether the pencil had been actually tested for gold content, and he or she continued the dance, backpedalling to say he or she had only heard that it "might" have been tested. By this point, I was pretty sure I knew what was going on. If the seller had heard anything about whether it was tested and the results were positive, the seller would be shouting 14k from the rooftops; whatever testing occurred, whether by the seller or someone else, obviously showed that this piece is gold filled and not gold.

I directly asked if the pencil showed assayer’s marks. Again, he or she was evasive, so I sent an offer along with the comment that I was interested in the piece for its historical value, but I was being forced to assume by their answers that the worst had been done to it.

Without comment, the seller accepted the offer.

Now that the Edward Todd is in hand, I still have no regrets about acquiring and preserving such an interesting and important piece of history, but my worst fears have been confirmed:

There are two lessons here. First, to my fellow collectors, historians and enthusiasts, ask a lot of questions and read non-answers as bad answers.

Second, to those greedy gold diggers who would consider melting down a piece of history just to make a buck, and who try to pawn off damaged goods to someone by implying a gold-filled pencil might be solid gold . . .

I’m on to you. And now everyone who has read this article is, too.


Anonymous said...

May I have permission to post this on my Pinterest study page "Appropriate Care of Old Material Objects"?

Jon Veley said...

That would be fine. Please email me a link to it and make sure to include the URL to my blog.

Martha said...

Darn! Greedy gougers. But it's still gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, it's pinned, with link, email sent with link, to be sure it meets with your approval.

Jon Veley said...

The Pinterest post is here: