Seashell collecting is among one of the most interesting hobbies in the world. It is well known that sea shell collecting goes back to the times of the Roman Emperors and Egyptian Pharaohs. However, the main time of collecting and some studies of seashells began during the 2nd half of the 17th century. And seashell collecting became a hobby of many European kings and very wealthy people of that time. Some of them equipped their own vessels and hired adventurers and explorers to hunt for treasured shells.
At the beginning shell collections were called "cabinets of the curious". Generally the same cabinets included not just specimen shells but also shark's teeth, fossils and other natural objects as well. It is not an overstatement to say that many specimen sea-shells cost a whole fortune. And it was still considered as a good fortune to purchase a quality specimen at a very expensive price! In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, having a seashell collection was like having a collection of vintage automobiles in our day, (he, he, I'd like to go back to the 18th century with my specimen shells).
These two crazy but true stories are illustrations of sea-shell deals during that epoch.
The Glory-of-the-Seas (Conus gloriamaris, Chemnitz 1777) had the reputation of being the rarest specimen for 180 years (1777-1957). In 1792, a famous collector Chris Hwass had won Gloriamaris at an auction, and paid a huge cash amount for it. But to everybody's great surprise, he immediately crushed it underfoot shouting "I still have one in my collection and its value is doubled now". Hwass naively believed he had become the only possessor of absolutely the only one Conus gloriamaris! Of course, he was wrong. Several years later, a few fresh new Glory-of-the-Seas specimens were brought to Europe. I've seen one super specimen of Conus gloriamaris available for 1200 USD. But I think that seller has kept for 50 years with the same high price. For one hundred USD, and you can have a treasured Glory-of-the-Seas in your collection.
In 1750, the husband of Maria Theresa paid 4000 Dutch guidens (over 40 kilograms of sterling silver) for one of the favorites with shell-collectors of the time - the Precious Wentletrap (Epitonium scalare, Linne 1758). Epitonium scalare's specimens were brought by the Dutch East-Indian traders in very tiny numbers. He was not to know it was a fake. Chinese "masters" knew how much Europeans were hungry for this valued natural treasure. And during the 19 century they flooded the market with Precious Wentletrap's imitations made from a rice-paste. Now everyone can purchase top quality Precious Wentletrap for less than 50 USD. But instead, those old Chinese rice-paste Wentletraps became great rarities. Consider that an old rice-paste Wentletrap was discovered now. Consider that two old rice-paste Wentletrap were discovered now. The paradox is that these old rice-past Wentletrap now cost hundreds times more than real natural ones.
Here must be noted, in the modern seashell collecting world, shell frauds have become a profitable speciality. And the Philippines is a now centre for this business. However, some parts of Europe make superior quality frauds too which are very hard to identify. Of course, the talk is mostly about uncommon, rare species.
Some particular specimens are priced very highly on the modern shell market too. For example, one specimen of Cypraea fultoni was sold for the record sum in 37.000 USD! Anyway, most of specimens are selling at a reasonable price, and only the unique or best specimens go for big money. In other words, you shouldn't own an oil well to be a shell collector our time.
Many famous men were shell collectors a more or less degree. This is a short list with some of these persons:
Augustus II the Strong (1670–1733), the King of Poland.
Peter I the Great (1682-1725), Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.
Emperor Hirohito of Japan (1901–1989), was an inveterate collector of sea-shells. Emperor's Slit Shell (Perotrochus hirasei, Pilsbury 1903) was named in honor of Emperor Hirohito. Until 1940, all of the slit shells caught by Japanese fishermen had to given to the Emperor. And nobody in Japan could own this attractive natural treasure without the Emperor's permission.
Prince Albert I, Prince of Monaco (1848 –1922). He founded the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. And part of his remarkable seashell collection is still exhibited there.
Mary Anne (Mary Ann, Marian) Evans (1819 - 1880), English novelist, who’s better known as George Eliot.
Sir Thomas Lipton ( 1848 –1931), the founder of the Lipton tea brand, and who was a winner of the America's Cup 5 times with his famous racing yachts called Shamrock.
Ian Fleming (1908 –1964), the creator of James Bond.
Fidel Castro (1926), Cuban leader. One of his passions is diving and finding shells off the coast of Cuba. Anyway, the following case happened during the Cold War. The CIA had known about this hobby of Castro and invested in a large volume of Caribbean mollusks to place near Cuba's shore. The idea was to take a big shell specimen and place a large amount of explosive in it. This exotic shell-bomb would be painted in effulgent colours enough to attract Castro's attention when he was underwater. That mad plan was not implemented. Also it isn't known that the kind of seashell the CIA was going to use for this "activity". It was most probably either the King Helmet (Cassis tuberosa, Linne 1758) or Queen Conch (Strombus gigas, Linne 1758).
Probably, there are over 200,000 different mollusk species alive at this time. Every year scientific investigators discover and describe dozens of new species of seashells, freshwater shells and land snails. But this article is not bringing you any sort of scientific information; this is just a little bit of the huge tasty pie which is called Conchology.
Shelling is the amazing world of different beautiful shell shapes, vivid colors and fanciful designs. And I believe you will never be bored with this hobby. Robert L. Stevenson once said: "It is perhaps a more fortunate destiny to have a taste for collecting shells than to be born a millionaire". Maybe this great writer was right! Maybe you should start collecting seashells today!