Ghosts of History: Why Butch Dalisay is Obsessed With the Hunt for Antiques
Why is it that people seem to be especially obsessed with nostalgia these days? Vinyl records and Polaroid cameras have come back into vogue, and groups that celebrate the past (like Classic Pare Titos and Titas of Manila) flourish, ironically, on Facebook.
This is probably indicative of a longing for a simpler time, when life wasn’t so fast-paced and people had time to sit down and write a letter or listen to a record. But while our collective fascination with the past may be more pronounced, it isn’t exactly new.
Butch Dalisay's vintage watch collection
Butch Dalisay—UP Vice President for Public Affairs, winner of 16 Palanca awards, Philippine Star columnist, and author of classic Filipino novels like Killing Time in a Warm Place—has been collecting vintage fountain pens, antique books, and old watches since the ’80s. He regularly posts his eBay finds on Twitter and writes about them on his blog, Pinoy Penman 3.0.
“I’ve always liked things older than me, so I grew up keeping my father’s pens and books. I began seriously collecting fountain pens about 30 years ago and began collecting vintage watches and old books about the Philippines shortly afterwards,” he says. “I find the past to be an infinitely interesting mystery, but one that’s accessible in a way through the objects it’s left behind. The 1930s and 1940s hold a special fascination for me as a period of transition—in designs, mindsets, and so on.”
Dalisay's copy of Twenty Years in the Philippines by Paul Proust de la Gironiere
He started out by visiting antique malls and shops, rummage sales, and Salvation Army stores in the American Midwest while he was a graduate student. Today, he does a good deal of his shopping on eBay. One of his most recent finds is a book of letters from the Jesuits to the King of Spain about their adventures in the Philippines, which was published in 1706.
He enjoys gathering books about Philippine history and literature from the 1800s and early 1900s. “I also look for books signed by their authors; otherwise, if I’m lucky, I get the authors to sign them, like I was able to do with several Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners, as well as our National Artists.”
Some of his most treasured books include a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, which he gifted to his daughter when she married a Filipino-American; an 1853 first English edition of Paul Proust de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines; and a first edition of Steven Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn, signed by its first owner, Zoilo Galang (the first Filipino novelist in English).
Dalisay's copy of Without Seeing the Dawn by Stevan Javellana
When asked about what he’s learned from the books he’s collected he says, “That human nature has basically remained the same all throughout history—people are driven by greed, lust, and hunger, but can also be extraordinarily brave, kind, and resourceful. I have a December 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian that raises the same issues our students and faculty members still bring up today: the university budget, academic freedom, and an education attuned to the times.”
The Philippine Collegian
When it comes to watches, Dalisay prefers vintage Hamiltons. “They exemplify the best in American postwar design, aesthetically and mechanically,” he says. “Watches before the 1950s were rather elaborate—pretty, but sometimes distractingly so. One of my favorites is a birth-year (1954) Hamilton Parker with an incredibly clean face. It’s all I want a watch to do—tell the time plainly and clearly. I use a modern Bell & Ross for precisely that reason. I used to prefer mechanical watches but, as an older man, I don’t mind quartz. I have an Apple Watch but rarely use it, because I don’t need another computer.”
A Hamilton Piping Rock
A Hamilton Parker
Dalisay is also well-known in the pen-collecting community for co-founding Fountain Pen Network-Philippines—in fact, the group’s first meeting was in his home in July 2008. “I wanted to find out who else in the Philippines was interested in fountain pens—I thought there would be three or four—but I didn’t think there would be so many! Today we number in the hundreds, including young people looking for a break in the digital world.”
Why fountain pens in particular? “Vintage pens offer some of the best examples of art and engineering coming together,” Dalisay explains. “I’m especially interested in Art Deco pens from the 1920s to the 1940s.”
Dalisay's fountain pen collection
At one point, his collection consisted of about 400 vintage and modern pens. He’s now aiming to reduce it to 50 pens he can pass down to his daughter in the future. “[It’s] now down to about 150 of the most desirable ones, including about 70 Parker Vacumatics, many Parker Duofolds, and maybe a dozen lovely Montblancs. It’s easier to let go of a pen when you know you’ll be buying a nicer one,” he says.
One of his most cherished pens—a burgundy red 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize—actually led him to write one of his Palanca award-winning stories. “I found [it] in a pen ship in Edinburgh in 1994, when I was on a Hawthornden Castle fellowship. It had been something of a Holy Grail for me, and I couldn’t believe it was right before me,” he recounts. “I paid a month’s salary for it, struggled with buyer’s remorse, then wrote a short story about it, ‘Penmanship,’ which thankfully won a prize and got me my money back.”
Dalisay's 1938 Parker Vacumatic
However, antique collecting isn’t always necessarily an expensive hobby—if you’re resourceful enough, you can find valuable specimens in the most unusual places. “I’ve found 20-to-50-year-old pens in mint condition selling for their original prices in stationery and department stores in Binondo and Cebu. I concluded the purchase of that Bulosan book in Jollibee Philcoa, although the seller approached me online. I also found a Swan Eternal No. 48—huge, rare, and lovely—in the Greenhills tiangge, of all places. I would’ve paid a mint for it, but the seller gave it to me for P500; I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” Dalisay says.
A Swan Eternal No. 48
Some people are put off from collecting antiques because of the belief that they can be creepy, or haunted. To this, Dalisay says, “I’m a skeptic and a rationalist, so the only ghosts I’ve met are those of history. Every vintage pen I own has been used by someone now long gone, and I often wonder about the letters they wrote, the messages of love, hope, anger, pleasure, and grief that must have flowed out of their nibs. That’s what haunts me.”