Guide to Antique Inkwells (Including Special Care Tips) 

These tiny desktop writing accessories can be simple and affordable or intricate and expensive, and they all make attractive and interesting collectibles.

Published November 23, 2022
Antique inkwell and pen on desktop

Young children can't help but pick up whatever writing implement they find and use it to scribble on any surface that's handy, as any parent who has scrubbed crayon from their walls can attest. There's something magical about watching colorful lines and shapes emerge across a clean surface with the flick of a wrist.

Rediscover this childlike glee of putting pen to page with the beautiful writing accessories of the past. Fountain pens have always been a famous fixture for people to collect, but antique inkwells are the sleeper hit of the writing tool community. You might've even picked one up without realizing it. An affordable collectible with an endless number of designs, these little pieces of the past hide in plain sight but come with an interesting story.

What Vintage and Antique Inkwells Look Like

Before self-contained ink pens like fountain pens were around, inkwells were the common accessory people used to keep their ink stable while writing. The oldest inkwells or inkstones had to be sealable and travel well, as the people who could read and write needed to take their tools with them.

The Basic Parts

Most inkwells have the same basic parts, meaning that you can almost always easily pick one out in a thrift store or private collection. They have two to three basic components.

  • The inner pan holds the ink. It's a metal or glass piece, and it can be either removable or an integrated part the inkwell.
Antique Victorian inkwell
  • The lid is a must have for inkwells. If you've ever dealt with India ink, then you know how difficult it is to deal with ink spills. These metal lids have little flip caps that snap or clasp closed, and some inkwells from the 1900s have screw top closures.
  • Some inkwells come with adjoining pieces that aren't used to hold ink. For example, if you see something that's about the shape of a piece of corn on the cob attached to an inkwell, it's a pen holder. Since people were only using dip pens until fountain pens came around, they needed a place to keep the pen.

Shape and Style

Inkwells come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but you can divide them into two different kinds - decorative and functional.

Functional inkwells were cheaply made and focused more on being useful than being pretty. Antique inkwells in basic shapes like squares, rectangles, and circles with simple stoppers are easy to find nowadays, and they're the most affordable kind of inkwell. Typically, they don't have identifiable makers, and common materials include brass and glass.

English antique inkwell with silverplate and glass

The trend of making highly ornate decorative inkwells started in the 19th century when the gap between the wealthy and the poor increased exponentially and the upper class wanted to show off their wealth in all the ways. So, every dusty, problematic tycoon from history had his own set of unnecessarily expensive inkwells. These were so expensive because of the level of technical skill involved to make the motifs come to life, as well as because of how valuable the materials (porcelain, gilt, silver, etc.) were. Since they were meant to be a part of an entire desk set, they usually came with a pen holder that was either built into the inkwell structure or crafted in separate piece with a matching design. Either way, these were limited to the rich, and given that they can sell for thousands of dollars today, they still are.

Silver desk set, neo rococo style

Common Materials

Since the inkwells you're the most likely to come across are from the late-19th century and later, you don't have to worry about running into too many made of wood or stone. But, that doesn't narrow the field too much because inkwells are one of those notoriously common mass-produced items that were made out of anything and everything.

From the cheapest to most expensive, here are the most common inkwell materials.

  • Glass
  • Shell
  • Pewter
  • Crystal
  • Brass
  • Ceramics
  • Porcelain
  • China
  • Silver

How Much Are Antique Inkwells Worth?

There are two distinct arenas when it comes to figuring out how much old inkwells are worth. On one hand, there are the appraisers and auction houses that deal in expensive, ornate inkwells from famous companies like Tiffany & Co. and Limoges. And on the other hand are the average people that find old inkwells in thrift shops and online for $100 or less. Both are totally valid, but only one deals with life-changing amounts of money.

If you're looking at an inkwell though, there's an easy way to assess its value without having to know a lot about it. Simply - the simpler, the cheaper. The most basic cut glass with metal top inkwells serve up a great aesthetic, but they aren't worth more than about $15-$45 online. Meanwhile, any kind of complicated carvings, decorations, fine china, and ceramic work indicates a slightly higher value. These are the ones that you'll be able to sell for closer to $50-$100 online. And, of course, some extremely intricate examples in good condition made from high-value materials can go for much, much more.

Antique Cut Glass Inkwell

Take, for example, these antique and vintage inkwells that recently sold online.

  • This Faberge parcel-gilt, silver, and cloisonne enamel inkwell circa 1899-1908 is an exquisite example of one of these highly decorative and expensive inkwells made for the economic elite. Though the exact price it sold for isn't public knowledge, Sotheby's estimated that it's worth about $120,000-$180,000.
  • Although it's only made of pewter, this vintage inkwell features a delightfully unusual lid with a hand-sized rat sitting on top of a seashell. Thanks to this decorative element, what isn't a very valuable piece sold for $34.99.
  • At the lowest rung of the price ladder comes this 1920s-1940s square inkwell made out of cobalt blue glass and stoppered with a brass top. It's obviously a mass-marketed inkwell meant to be a cheap, functional desk accessory, which is why it only sold for $19.99.

Tips for Selling Antique Inkwells

So, you've got an old inkwell, and you've got two options - keep it or sell it. Maybe it's exactly the kind of vintage piece you've been looking for to add that special sauce to your work desk setup, and you just want to look at it every day; so keep it, because we all need a dose of serotonin once in a while. But, if you inherited one from a family member or got gifted one from a friend, then you might be thinking of getting rid of it. If that's the case, keep in mind that inkwells aren't that valuable, but they can make for a quick cash turnaround.

Some of the best places to both sell and shop for antique inkwells are online.

  • eBay is THE online auction site to get rid of pretty much anything quick or to find virtually any collectible you seek. Mostly you'll find common, affordable inkwells here. Occasionally, a more high-value inkwell comes up for auction.
  • Etsy is an artisan and vintage collectibles site. Buying is easy, while selling requires you to set up shop. You're likely to find fairly affordable inkwells here, with the occasional showstopper in the mix.
  • 1st Dibs is an online marketplace for fine antiques and collectibles, so it's a great place to drop a pretty penny on a luxury inkwell.
  • Ruby Lane is a large vintage and antique online marketplace with many unique decorative inkwells for sale. There's a good mix of inkwells here with prices ranging from around $50 to thousands of dollars.
  • LiveAuctioneers is an international live auction site. Depending on who's bidding, you could nab a bargain or drop a bundle on a quality inkwell.

How to Clean and Care for Your Antique Inkwells

With a little elbow grease and time, you can bring old inkwells back to life and actually use them for all kinds of dip pen activities. From calligraphy for your personalized thank you notes to writing in your favorite journal, there's always a reason to pick up a dip pen and stretch your handwriting muscles. But, before you dump a bunch of ink in the wells, you need to look inside and see if there's any leftover dried ink in there. Because, if so, then getting that out of there is your first priority.

Step 1: Investigate Your Inkwell

When you're cleaning any antique, you need to know what kind of materials you're working with so that you use the right cleaner. In almost every scenario with these old inkwells, a bath in lukewarm soapy water and being scrubbed with a toothbrush or cloth should do the trick. But, if you're living the high life and find out you've got a sterling silver piece, you'll want to be careful about not using tools that'll leave lasting scratch marks.

Step 2: Gently Take Apart and Clean

Some antique inkwells have detachable wells on the inside, and if yours does, then removing it from the outer case (which might be much cleaner than the inner well where the ink usually sits) can make cleaning a lot quicker. Using a mild soap and water mixture, you can gently scrub away the dirt, dust, and debris on your piece. A cloth or toothbrush for the harder pieces will work fine. Once you're done cleaning, make sure that you carefully dry each of the pieces.

Step 3: Polish to a Sweet Shine

Whether it's made out of wood or metal, you can use a good polish to really make your inkwell look like it belongs in a museum. You can use commercial or homemade polishes for silver inkwells, and brass inkwells require a little bit of spot testing before using a polish.

Live Life the Write Way

There are some collectibles that, when you hold them in your hands, just make everything feel different; the past seems much closer than it ever has before. Antique and vintage inkwells are perfect examples of small trinkets that can hold so much of the past in their little packages that people love to buy them. It helps that they're usually less expensive than your date night dinner bill. So, whether you've got your great-grandmother's inkwell from her childhood, or you found a stranger's inkwell with a mysterious past at a thrift shop, display them with pride.

Guide to Antique Inkwells (Including Special Care Tips)