eBay can be a great resource—if you know what you are looking for. The latest modern pen I acquired there was a Platinum ultra-extra-fine 3776 Century Bourgogne with a 14k nib. I managed to get it for an extremely reasonable price, given it was shipping from Japan. It cost less than those available on Amazon, as well as at other online sellers, for the gold nib version I was after.
Since Dan and I have begun restoring pens as well, buying auction lots on eBay has yielded some wins and some losses. Overall I have been fairly lucky in the quality of pens I've managed to snag. There have been nice vintage ones available in the last few months, good prices and good quality. Most of them will be quick to restore, others not as quick or necessarily easy (or in some cases not even worth attempting, though the rest of the lot was worth getting despite the dud or two included).
One method I employ with eBay, much as with any other hobby or business purchase, is to give myself a budget limit and try to stick to it. It can be difficult to keep yourself from succumbing to the competitiveness that might cause you to spend a bit more than you intended (it can be far worse at a live auction!).
It might not be competitiveness that gets you. It might be the "have to have that now" bug when we find something new to us that happens to be popular and pricey—like those vintage wet noodle flex nibs. How I wish I'd found one of those before the prices went silly on almost all of them listed online.
The third gotcha is for the completionists among us. I'm going to flatly contradict my statement about the affordability of Esterbrook pens from my previous post by noting that certain colors and styles have been setting ridiculous price points on eBay in the last couple of months (late Spring, early Summer '16). I've still managed to get a few pens for under $20-$30 each, while others of that same style in a different color were rocketing well above $100 and a few over $200. That's just a tad nuts for what was a $2-3 dollar pen originally (and perhaps a nice cache to list for sale if you have a drawer full sitting around!).
Be sure you have done your homework, especially for things that are readily available elsewhere — such as modern pens still in production like the 3776. It comes down to the same things that you would look for at a store or a pen show (see reference below) when choosing a pen. The down-side is you don't have the advantage of holding it in your hand for a thorough going over and a really good look at the nib.
Another good way to research the market value of a pen you may be interested in is to utilize the advanced search on eBay. In the browser click on "Advanced" to the right of the search button, type something to search for—say, "Esterbrook"—then select "Completed Listings" if you want to see everything that did and didn't sell, or "Sold Listings" to just see what sold. On iPad or iPhone (sorry I don't have experience with any other mobile instances of eBay, hopefully they are similar) do the search first and then select "Filter", then "Show More" and again you will be able to select "Completed" or "Sold" to do your research.
Take into account that most eBay sellers don't offer free shipping. I calculate the maximum I'm willing to pay, deduct the shipping (and tax if applied) giving me my bid cap. Sometimes that formula needs to be tweaked if you are buying from a seller outside your country. There are actually some pretty decent pens and good sellers across the globe. It can be a gamble with some shipping services out there. Seller ratings and feedback are a good thing to check when considering a purchase from abroad to confirm buyers receive goods in a relatively timely fashion and in good condition consistently.
Of course, we have our own domestic shipping nightmares from time-to-time, so confirming that a seller packages well is also something reading some feedback might tell you. I try to be clear about that when I provide feedback because it's helpful to the next person who may buy from that seller.
If you aren’t prepared to repair and restore pens yourself, it's probably better to steer clear of listings that say the pen isn’t working, something is missing, etc. Many end up being a quick and easy repair, while others require special tools, skills developed over time (the breaking of a few nibs or pens), and possibly parts you will have to scrounge for or that may take a long time to locate at reasonable cost.
It is an annoying fact that many sellers* don't seem to know they should have pictures of nibs in their listing. Even when the barrels, caps and clips look great, if they don't have a single photo of a nib I tend to skip bidding. Of course, I've probably missed out on an inexpensive wet noodle along the line due to that. I watch to see whether it sells or not and keep track of market values for some pens, but no nib picture - generally no bid.
Judging the size of a pen pictured by itself with nothing to reference against is another thing to be aware of. Dan and I got bitten with a listing claiming oversize for a Sheaffer's when in reality it was a full-size. There is a substantial difference between those two sizes, and inexperienced sellers, hoping to turn estate finds into a bit of profit, may not have the most accurate of pen listings. When in doubt I now try to wait for a better listing—more description to go on, photos with objects for comparison sizing, and so forth.
Keeping an eye on sold auctions, and having a few in your watch list to compare, is a good way to get a feel for what’s available, and what particular pens are selling for. Comparison to online sellers who restore and sell vintage will also give you rough market value information to work with as you search for a pen just right for you. You might just find a couple reliable daily writers to include in your rotation, vintage or modern.
- Richard Binder's "Your First Pen Show" guidance.
- David Nimishura's "Getting Started with Vintage Pens".
- The Art of Manliness "Writing with History: How to Collect and Buy Vintage Fountain Pens"
- There's even info on eBay itself: "A Guide to Buying Vintage Pens". It's by no means exhaustive in information, but a reasonable overview.
*eBay sellers who may see this post: Please consider, especially if the nib is in decent shape, taking a picture of that pen with the cap off. Show the nib! I'm more likely to become your customer if you do. Sometimes, if the pen is one I've really been searching for, I'll contact a seller to see if they will take some pictures of the nib. Even then, if the photos don't show the condition of the tip very well, I may still pass.