Mad About Seashells

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

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)
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Another dealer, Donald Dan, bustled back and forth among his displays. Like a jeweler, he wore flip-up lenses on his gold-rimmed eyeglasses. At 71, Dan has silver hair brushed back in a wave above his forehead and is one of the last of the old-time shell dealers. Though more and more trading now takes place via the Internet, Dan does not even maintain a Web site, preferring to work through personal contacts with collectors and scientists around the world.

Dan said he first got interested in shells as a boy in the Philippines, largely because a friend's father played tennis. The friend, Baldomero Olivera, used to meet his father every day after school at a Manila tennis club. While he waited for his ride home, Olivera got in the habit of picking through the pile of shells dredged up from Manila Bay to be crushed and spread on the tennis courts. Thus Olivera became a collector and recruited his classmates, including Dan, to join him in a local shell club. Because cone snails were native to the Philippines and had an interesting reputation for killing people, Olivera went on to make their venom his specialty when he became a biochemist. He's now a professor at the University of Utah, where he pioneered the research behind a new class of cone-snail-derived drugs—including the one that relieved Phil Quinton's leg pain.

Dan became a collector, too, and then a dealer, after a career as a corporate strategist. Sometime around 1990, a rumor reached him through the collecting grapevine about a beautiful item of obscure identity being hoarded by Russian collectors. Dan, who now lives in Florida, made discreet inquiries, loaded up on trade items and, when visa restrictions began to relax, flew to Moscow. After protracted haggling, Dan obtained the prized shell, a glossy brown oval with a wide mouth and a row of fine teeth along one edge. "I was totally dumbfounded," he recalled. "You couldn't even imagine that this thing exists." It was from a snail that until then had been thought to have gone extinct 20 million years ago. Among shell collectors, Dan said, it was like finding the coelacanth, the so-called fossil fish.

Dan later purchased another specimen of the same species, originally found by a Soviet trawler in the Gulf of Aden in 1963. By looking inside through a break that had occurred when the shell rolled out of the net onto the deck of the ship, scientists were able to identify it as a member of a family of marine snails called Eocypraeidae. It's now known as Sphaerocypraea incomparabilis.

One of the few other known specimens belonged to a prominent Soviet oceanographer—"a very staunch Communist," Dan said—who at first refused to sell. Then the value of the ruble deteriorated in the 1990s. To earn hard currency, the Russians were providing submersibles for the exploration of the wreck of the Titanic. The staunch Communist oceanographer found himself in need of hard currency, too. So one of the operators on the Titanic job brought the shell with him on a trip to North America, and Dan made the purchase.

He sold that shell and his first specimen to a private collector, and in time that collection was given to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which hired Florida shell dealer Martin Gill to appraise its value. Dan's love affair with S. incomparabilis marked the high point of his life as a dealer: there are still only six known specimens in the world, and he had handled four of them.

A few years later, an American Museum of Natural History curator who was showing S. incomparabilis to a reporter discovered that one of the two shells was missing. The world of top shell collectors is relatively small, and an investigation soon suggested that, for Martin Gill, the temptation to pocket such a jewel-like prize had simply been too great. Gill had advertised a suspiciously familiar shell for sale and then sold it over the Internet to a Belgian dealer for $12,000. The Belgian in turn had sold it to an Indonesian collector for $20,000. An investigator for the museum consulted Dan. By comparing his photographs with one from the Indonesian collector, Dan spotted a telltale trait: the truncated 13th tooth in both specimens was identical. The shell came back to the museum, the Belgian dealer refunded the $20,000 and Gill went to prison.

It was proof that conchylomania lives.

Richard Conniff's new book, Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time, includes many stories he's written for the magazine.
Sean McCormick is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer.

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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