For those who love to collect shells, finding that rare species or unbroken specimen can be priceless. But what if a shell picked up on the beach was worth more than an original Vermeer painting? For Europeans in the 18th century, it was no contest; an obsession with all things shells, labeled at the time as conchylomania, had swept across the continent and shells became more valuable than the finest paintings of the Baroque period.
Shells have been an integral part of human culture since Homo sapiens first invented culture. Anthropologists have discovered remains of shell jewelry in North Africa and Israel dated back over 75,000 years, and since then, our love of shells has only expanded. Their influence in home decoration, cutlery, currency, and art is unparalleled; the French rococo art movement itself comes from the French word “rocaille” meaning shellwork.
But the conchylomania that stirred Europe into a frenzy did not occur until the arrival of colonization and expansion of the European empires in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically by the Dutch East India Company. As the world was being discovered by Europeans for the first time, an obsession with biological collectibles was all the rage. Wealthy men took pride in their “cabinets of curiosities,” where they could show off expensive and rare items from around the world. And the shells brought back by Dutch traders were no different. Trade ships returned from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Oceania with not only textiles and spices but also beautiful shells from beaches along the Indian and Pacific Oceans, a sight never before seen by most Europeans.
In 55 BCE, Cicero spoke of the ancient Roman generals Scipio Africanus and Gaius Laelius who would “find relief together in mental relaxations” by “[picking] up shells and pebbles…on the beaches of Caieta and Laurentum.”
Conchylomania was the exact opposite of Scipio and Laelius’s mental relaxation on the beach. Shells from various species of sea snails were brought back to Europe to a frenzy of voracious collectors, and none were as valued as Conus gloriamaris, a small species of sea snail found across the Indo-Pacific coastline, which became the rarest shell in the Western world with only ten specimens known to exist in Europe. It was a specimen of this shell that reportedly sold at an auction in Amsterdam for more guilders than Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter, which is now priceless and hangs in the Rijksmuseum.
Conus gloriamaris wasn’t the only valuable shell; shells across the continent were selling for more than Van Dyck, Hals, and other Vermeer works. Another story, possibly apocryphal, tells how one man purchased a second C. gloriamaris shell only to crush it in order to preserve the value of his first.
Wealthy collectors had portraits done of them posing with their shells. Scallop shells and spiral shells also had connections to symbolism in Christianity, which made large shell collections even more valuable. The value and beauty of a well-preserved shell was incomparable in European society, and only major social and economic upheaval would finally bring conchylomania to an end.
By the end of the 18th century, the Dutch East India Company had been dissolved, countries in the Indo-Pacific region were fighting back against European colonization, and more specimens of previously rare shells such as C. gloriamaris were being discovered. Scientists grew more interested in categorizing and studying the animals and collectors moved on to other rare items. Conchylomania was finally waning.
In 1969, when an entire colony of C. gloriamaris was found in the Solomon Islands, the collecting of shells had become the still fulfilling but far less expensive hobby it is today. Like Scipio and Laelius over 2000 years ago, many shell collectors today are not motivated by social status or economic trade but simply the joy of walking on the beach and marveling at the beauty of nature.
Read more about Conus Gloriamaris shells.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2021 issue.
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