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At an 18th-century auction in Amsterdam, Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter sold for about one-third the amount that its owner spent to obtain a then rare Conus gloriamaris shell. (Sean McCormick)

Mad About Seashells

Collectors have long prized mollusks for their beautiful exteriors, but for scientists, it’s what inside that matters

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When Phil Quinton got rolled under a log at a California sawmill some years ago, he crawled out and went back to work. It turned out that he had a crushed spine. After an operation the pain just got worse, Quinton says, and he learned to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Eventually, his doctors put him on massive doses of morphine until he could no longer stand the side effects.

Then a doctor told him about cone snails—a group of marine snails, beautiful but deadly—and a new drug, a synthetic derivative from the venom of one of them, Conus magus, the magician's cone. Quinton had actually seen cone snails kill fish in an aquarium and on television, and it was a kind of magic, given that snails move at a snail's pace and generally cannot swim. "It took 20 minutes," he says, "but the snail came over to the fish and put out this long skinny thing and touched it, and that fish just froze."

The snail's proboscis was a hypodermic needle for its venom, a complex cocktail of up to 200 peptides. Quinton also knew that cone snails have at times killed people. But for the drug, called Prialt, researchers synthesized a single venom peptide that functions as a calcium-channel blocker, bottling up pain by interfering with signals between nerve cells in the spinal cord. The third day after he started taking Prialt, says Quinton, now 60, the pain in his legs went away. It wasn't a miracle cure; he still had back pain. But for the first time in years, he could go out for a daily walk. He owed his recovery to one of the most underrated pastimes in human history: shell collecting.

The peculiar human passion for the exoskeletons of mollusks has been around since early humans first started picking up pretty objects. Shellfish were, of course, already familiar as food: some scientists argue that clams, mussels, snails and the like were critical to the brain development that made us human in the first place. But people also soon noticed their delicately sculpted and decorated shells. Anthropologists have identified beads made from shells in North Africa and Israel at least 100,000 years ago as among the earliest known evidence of modern human culture.

Since then various societies have used shells not just as ornaments, but also as blades and scrapers, oil lamps, currency, cooking utensils, boat bailers, musical instruments and buttons, among other things. Marine snails were the source of the precious purple dye, painstakingly collected one drop at a time, that became the symbolic color of royalty. Shells may also have served as models for the volute on the capital of the Ionic column in classical Greece and for Leonardo da Vinci's design for a spiral staircase in a French chateau. In fact, shells inspired an entire French art movement: Rococo, a word blending the French rocaille, referring to the practice of covering walls with shells and rocks, and the Italian barocco, or Baroque. Its architects and designers favored shell-like curves and other intricate motifs.

The craving for shells was even powerful enough to change the fate of a continent: at the start of the 19th century, when rival French and British expeditions set out for the unknown coasts of Australia, the British moved faster. The French were delayed, one of those on board complained, because their captain was more eager "to discover a new mollusk than a new landmass." And when the two expeditions met up in 1802 at what is now Encounter Bay, on the south coast of Australia, a French officer complained to the British captain that "if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies...you would not have discovered the south coast before us." The French went home with their specimens, while the British quickly moved to expand their colony on the island continent.

The madness for shells that took hold of European collectors from the 17th century onward was largely a byproduct of colonial trade and exploration. Along with spices and other merchandise, ships of the Dutch East India Company brought back spectacularly beautiful shells from what is now Indonesia, and they became prized items in the private museums of the rich and royal. "Conchylomania," from the Latin concha, for cockle or mussel, soon rivaled the Dutch madness for collecting tulip bulbs, and often afflicted the same people. One Amsterdam collector, who died in 1644, had enough tulips to fill a 38-page inventory, according to Tulipmania, a recent history by Anne Goldgar. But he also had 2,389 shells, and considered them so precious that, a few days before his death, he had them put away in a chest with three separate locks. The three executors of his estate each got a single key, so they could show the collection to potential buyers only when all three of them were present. Dutch writer Roemer Visscher mocked both tulip maniacs and "shell-lunatics." Shells on the beach that used to be playthings for children now had the price of jewels, he said. "It is bizarre what a madman spends his money on."

And he was right: at one 18th-century auction in Amsterdam, some shells sold for more than paintings by Jan Steen and Frans Hals, and only slightly less than Vermeer's now-priceless Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. The collection also included a Conus gloriamaris shell, for which the owner had paid about three times what his estate was getting for the Vermeer.

From a financial perspective, valuing shells over Dutch masters may rank among the dumbest purchases ever. There are only 30-some known Vermeer paintings on earth. But the scarcity that could make a shell seem so precious was almost always illusory. For instance, C. gloriamaris, a four-inch-long cone covered in a delicate fretwork of gold and black lines, was for centuries among the most coveted species in the world, known from only a few dozen specimens. One shell-trade story held that a wealthy collector who already owned a specimen managed to buy another at auction and, in the interest of scarcity, promptly crushed it underfoot. To maintain prices, collectors also spread the rumor that an earthquake had destroyed the species' habitat in the Philippines and rendered it extinct. Then in 1970, divers discovered the mother lode in the Pacific, north of Guadalcanal Island, and the value of C. gloriamaris plummeted. Today you can buy one for roughly the price of dinner for two at a nice restaurant. And paintings by Vermeer? The last time one came on the market, in 2004, it went for $30 million. (And it was a minor and slightly questionable one at that.)

But what seems common to us could seem breathtakingly rare to early collectors, and vice versa. Daniel Margocsy, a historian of science at Northwestern University, points out that Dutch artists produced five million or more paintings in the 17th century. Even Vermeers and Rembrandts could get lost in the glut, or lose value as fashions shifted. Beautiful shells from outside Europe, on the other hand, had to be collected or acquired by trade in distant countries, often at considerable risk, then transported long distances home on crowded ships, which had an alarming tendency to sink or go up in flames en route.

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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