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The Matchless Cone: Conus cedonulli, Linnaeus 1767

"Mr. Lyonet the celebrated naturalist was then living at the Hague, and I should be ungrateful not to commemorate his politeness in shewing me at leisure his very capital collection of shells and pictures. The former, although not systematically arranged, appeared one of the finest collections I had ever seen, containing many unique shells, as well as all those that usually fell at the dearest rate....especially that famous unique Conus Cedo nulli, figured in Seba's Museum, vol. 3. t. 48. f. 8, the despair of all other collectors. This shell is not granulated, as would appear from Seba's figure, but quite smooth. The shades of the markings make it seem granulated."

James Edward Smith, A Sketch of a Tour on the Continent in the Years 1786 and 1787

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the most famous cabinet of shells in the Netherlands belonged to Johan de la Faille. In it, there was a unique specimen known at the time simply as Cedo nulli, from the Latin "I yield to none." This cone shell was thought to be so rare and beautiful that Albertus Seba, a wealthy apothecary from Amsterdam, had a color drawing made of it which later was included in Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio (1758, Vol. III, p. 138, Pl. XLVIII, fig. 8), a lavishly illustrated catalog of his own cabinet of natural curiosities. There in the Index he describes the shell as le Nompareil, ou le Roi du Sud ("Unparalleled, the King of the South"). De la Faille, who had purchased the shell in 1711 for 500 florins (guilders), and once rejected an offer of 3,600 fl., sold his collection twenty years later, and the Cedonulli was purchased for 965 fl. by a Dutch dealer.

After several more decades, in 1750, the shell was sold to the Dutch naturalist Pierre Lyonet, who bought it for 1,500 francs, believing it to be unique. (In fact, de la Faille subsequently had acquired a second specimen, which was sold at his death to the King of Portugal for 1,020 livres.) During his lifetime, Lyonet refused several offers from the Duchess of Portland to buy the shell for £100, valuing it at three times that amount and unwilling to part with it for any less. By 1796, however, political turmoil in Europe (and the discovery of several other specimens) had dampened the enthusiasm of collectors, and it sold posthumously for 273 fl (£30) to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the taxonomist and evolutionary theorist. Eventually, the shell came into the collection of the Natural History Museum in Geneva, where it remains. Having been documented for the past three hundred years, the Conus cedonulli of Johan de la Faille very likely is the oldest authenticated shell in a European museum.

When Linnaeus classified Cedo nulli in his Systema Naturae (12th ed., 1767, No. 298ε, p. 1167), it was Seba's picture that served as the lectotype of the species, that is, the representative example when the original has not been described. Although Seba saw the original shell (the holotype) and actually held it in his hand (it now is presumed lost), Linnaeus had not, and his description presumably derives from the picture and the accompanying text in Seba's Thesaurus (as it generally is known), which indicated that it was from the South Seas (as distinct from the "American Admirals" in Seba's collection). Linnaeus named the shell Conus ammiralis cedo nulli and considered it to be a subspecies (infraspecific form) of Conus ammiralis, which he had described in the Systema Naturae (10th ed., 1758, No. 257δ, pp. 714), the habitat of both being given as O. Americæ meridionalis ("the Ocean of southern America"). Ironically, Linnaeus places the wrong shell in the correct locality. C. ammiralis ("Admiral Cone") is from the Indo-Pacific, whereas C. cedonulli ("Matchless Cone") is to be found in the southern Caribbean, primarily St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles off the coast of Venezuela.

Kohn initially had agreed that the Cedo nulli of Seba and Linnaeus was a variant of C. ammiralis. Inspecting C. ammiralis cedonulli more closely, however, Dunn recognized that C. ammiralis invariably has a yellow band of fine reticulations on the shoulder and that its large white markings are shaped more like arrowheads than the clouds and beaded white dots figured by Seba. He concluded that the subspecies described by Linnaeus was, in fact, a species in its own right. Kohn later concurred that C. cedonulli is a valid species, not previously described and distinct from C. ammiralis.

In the tenth edition of the Systema Naturae, published in 1758, Linnaeus sought to enumerate every animal known to him by means of a uniform system of nomenclature—a binomen by which it could be described in terms of both genus and species. For the first time, a mollusk, for example, could be confidently identified without the vagaries of national language or local dialect. The introduction of binominal names was revolutionary, to be sure. But Linnaeus was not inclined to illustrate the shells he already had so labored to identify and describe. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, that would be the task of others.

This figure of Cedo nulli is from the first of three plates illustrating tres rares shells that were appended to the second edition of d'Argenville's La Conchyliologie (1757, Pl. I, fig. H), about which he says On ne peut voir une Coquille d'un plus bel aspect & d'uneforme plus elegante ("One could not see a shell of a more beautiful aspect and a more elegant form," p. 385). It is the same shell that Seba was to depict in his Thesaurus the following year and one of several from Lyonet's collection illustrated by d'Argenville. Lyonet criticized the description, however, to which d'Argenville retorted that he should have been pleased by the celebrity the illustrations had brought him.

Just as Linnaeus was establishing a scientific binomen for Cedo nulli, the name itself was being used as an epithet to distinguish cone shells of extraordinairement beau (p. 148). D'Argenville remarks La fameux Amiral nommé par excellence cedo nulli ("The famous Admiral named par excellence Cedo nulli," p. 384), implying that C. ammiralis originally was regarded as a cedonulli. Earlier, in Oud en nieuw Oost-Indiën (1726), Valentijn had compared the Cedo Nulli as een zeer zeldzaame hoorn ("a very rare shell") to een Orangie Admiraal (Vol. III, p. 570).

Lyonet's Cedo nulli was drawn as well by Georg Wolfgang Knorr in Les délices des yeux et de l'esprit, ou collection generale des differentes especes de coquillages (1773, Part VI, Pl. 1, fig. 1), a French translation of the original work in German (Vergnügen der Augen und des Gemüths, "Delights for the Eyes and Mind," 1757; there also was a Dutch translation, which attests to the book's popularity). The illustration is said to have scrupulously adhered to the original painting and been copied "with all possible exactitude," surpassing the figures in Seba and d'Argenville, which "in truth, are not the best." And, indeed, the beautifully drawn shells do take precedence, although the text relates mainly to their appearance and there is no particular order to their presentation. (In the French translation, the name of the shell has been added; it does not appear in the original German edition.)

The first extensive presentation of shells, the Neues Systematisches Conchylien-Cabinet, was published in eleven volumes from 1769–1795 by Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Martini, a physician and naturalist from Hamburg whose intention was to present, in color, every shell known. But no sooner had the third volume been published than Martini died. The work was continued by the Danish clergyman Johann Hieronymus Chemnitz, who completed the final eight volumes. Although more systematic than Knorr, the Conchylien-Cabinet did not use binominal nomenclature. The result is that later authors appropriated authorship for many species by citing the illustrations and then applying the missing binomen. In spite of his exertions, Conus gloriamaris, Chemnitz 1777, for example, is the only shell to carry his name. The Cedo nulli is from Volume II (1773, pp. 273-275, Pl. LVII, fig. 633).

This illustration is from the posthumous third edition of d'Argenville's La Conchyliologie (1780, pp. 551ff; Vol. III, Pl. XVI, fig. D5), edited by Jacques de Favanne (and son). It too depicts the Cedo-nulli from Lyonet's cabinet. But, apparently unaware that de la Faille had owned two specimens, it was presumed that the illustration of C. cedonulli shown in Seba's Thesaurus was the shell acquired by the King of Portugal and not the one owned by Lyonet (as depicted by d'Argenville and Knorr). (In the elaborate arrangement of shells in La Conchyliologie, d'Argenville provided what would become an indispensable guide for the display of other shell cabinets in France during the eighteenth century.)

In the entry on cone shells by Christian Hwass (p. 602) for Jean Guillaume Bruguière's Encyclopédie méthodique (1792), the first shell to be listed is C. cedonulli amiralis, which he declares to be le vrai cédonulli, "the true cedonulli" (Plate 316, fig. 1 in Tableau, Vol. III, 1827). There, too, Bruguière attributes the original description of Conus cedonulli to Jacob Theodor Klein in his Tentamen methodi ostracologicæ, sive dispositio naturalis cochlidum et concharum (1753, p. 70, No. 46b), where he refers to the shell sold by de la Faille to the Portuguese king.

Given that Linnaeus' description contains only a few words that actually are descriptive of the shell, the remarkable variation in its morphology, and that the holotype no longer exists, there has been some question whether the Cedo nulli originally figured is the same species known by that name today. Dance, for example, suspects that the shell illustrated by Seba probably was a C. ammiralis and that the Cedo nulli of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries likely comprised several species, including C. dominicanus Hwass, 1792. When Jean Guillaume Bruguière published the first volume of his Encyclopédie méthodique, histoire naturelle des vers in 1792, for example, Hwass' entry for Conus cedonulli (p. 602) included half a dozen variations, about the same number of species that now are recognized as belonging to a so-called "cedonulli complex" of closely related species that, because of differences in physical locale, have evolved differing colors and patterns. So, too, the original Cedo Nulli very likely embraced a coterie of similar shells. Indeed, as Donovan cautioned in 1823

"I ought not to close these remarks without observing, that these shells vary so considerably that no two specimens have yet occurred that agree precisely with each other....The transitions of these shells, it must be confessed are so various as to render it extremely difficult, if not unsafe, to determine where one species ends and another commences, the difference in the colours affords no sufficient data, neither is the form of the shell, nor the height of the spire so uniformly certain as to constitute a precise criterion."


Most examples of C. cedonulli are less than 50mm (about two inches), the approximate size of Lyonet's shell. This juvenile specimen is 32mm, although the coloration is similar to that of an adult.

Fluctuating rates of inflation, differing geographic locations, and changing political situations make the calculation of the historical value of currency in terms of its contemporary purchasing power problematic at best. It is made all the more so by not knowing when the Duchess of Portland made her offer to buy the Cedo nulli that Lyonet had owned for the thirty-five years prior to her death. By any measure, £100 (an early account says 100 guineas) was a considerable sum. Using a simple purchasing power calculator, a hundred guineas might fluctuate between £15,160 and £12,130 during that time (1750–1785). An even more dramatic price increase is realized if Hume's multiplier of 200–300 is used. For the period 1740–1792, he calculates a single guinea to be the equivalent of £210–£315.

An anecdote from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson records a conversation in 1763, in which Johnson proposes that a sum of £6 a year—

"will fill your belly, shelter you from the weather, and even get you a strong lasting coat, supposing it to be made of good bull's hide. Now, Sir, all beyond this is artificial, and is desired in order to obtain a greater degree of respect from our fellow-creatures. And, Sir, if six hundred pounds a year procure a man more consequence, and, of course, more happiness than six pounds a year, the same proportion will hold as to six thousand, and so on, as far as opulence can be carried. Perhaps he who has a large fortune may not be so happy as he who has a small one; but that must proceed from other causes than from his having the large fortune: for, coeteris paribus, he who is rich in a civilized society, must be happier than he who is poor; as riches, if properly used, (and it is a man's own fault if they are not,) must be productive of the highest advantages. Money, to be sure, of itself is of no use: for its only use is to part with it" (Chap. XIII).

Matters are complicated further by the fact that the French livre was not an actual coin but "money of account," a nominal denomination used only for accounting purposes. The equivalent of twenty sous, it had the value of approximately 0.01 ounces of gold. There were 24 livres to a gold Louie (after the currency reform of 1726), which itself was worth a bit less than an English pound. In 1796, when Lyonet's cedonulli was sold to Lamarck for £30, it represented (at a minimum) the wages of a skilled tradesman for 200 days or the price of six cows. As can be seen, the relative value of £30 might be calculated to be £2,800 but still not reflect its actual purchasing power in the late eighteenth century.

(As to the notion that the only use of money "is to part with it," no more fervent advocate is to the found than the fifth Duke of Devonshire who, when advised that his son and heir was spending a great deal of money, replied simply "So much the better; Lord Hartington will have a great deal of money to spend.")

The picture of C. cedonulli (top) is from Volume III (1758) of Seba's Thesaurus, which was dedicated to shells and marine organisms. It is copied from the Taschen reprint, as the figure from the Biodiversity Heritage Library is not realistically colored.

References: Shell Collecting: An Illustrated History (1966) by S. Peter Dance (the definitive study); "The Conus cedonulli Complex: Historical Review, Taxonomy and Biological Observations" (1985) by Danker L. N. Vink and Rudo von Cosel, Revue Suisse de Zoologie, 92(3), 525-603; "The Conus cedonulli Complex" (1977) by Danker L. N. Vink, Zoologische Mededelingen, 51(5), 79-93; "Alphabetical Revision of the (Sub) Species in Recent Condiae. 6: Cabritii to Cinereus" (1983) by H. E. Coomans, R. G. Moolenbeek, and E. Wils, Basteria, 47(5-6), 67-143; "A Historical Review of the Mollusks of Linnaeus. Pt. 2: The Class Cephalopoda and the Genera Conus and Cypraea of the Class Gastropoda" (1953) by Henry Dodge, Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 103(1), 1-134; "Type Specimens and Identity of the Described Species of Conus.1: The Species Described by Linnaeus, 1758-1767" (1963) by Alan J. Kohn, Journal of the Linnean Society (Zoology), 44, 740-768; "Chronological Analysis of the Species Conus Described During the 18th Century" (1976) by Alan J. Kohn, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 58, 39-59; Pierre Lyonet, 1706-1789 (1962) by W. H. Van Seters (in French); Rare Shells (1969) by S. Peter Dance; A Sketch of a Tour on the Continent in the Years 1786 and 1787 (1793) by James Edward Smith (Vol. I, p. 37) "Great Shells" (1985) by Jean-Claude Cailliez, Hawaiian Shell News, 33(2), 4; "Untangling the Cedonulli Complex" (1977) by Elmer G. Leehman, Hawaiian Shell News, 25(8), 14; Conus of the Southeastern United States and Caribbean (2014) by Alan J. Kohn; “Le Naturaliste Hollandais Pierre Lyonet: Sa Vie et ses Oeuvres 1706-1789” (1910) by Émile Hublard, Mérnoires et Publications de la Société des Sciences, des Arts, et des Letters du Hainaut, 61, 1–159; "The Value of Money in Eighteenth-Century England: Incomes, Prices, Buying Power—and Some Problems in Cultural Economics" (2015) by Robert D. Hume, Huntington Library Quarterly, 77(4), 373-416; "A Collation of the Three Editions of Gerog Wolfgang Knorr's Conchological Work 'Vergnügen' (1757-1775)" (2010) by Henk H. Dijkstra, Basteria, 74(1-3), 33-50; "Mobile Objects: The Space of Shells in Eighteenth-Century France" (2006) by Bettina Dietz, The British Journal for the History of Science, 39(3), 363-382; <Conchology: Plate I, Figure iv. Conus Ammiralis var Cedo Nulli> (1823) by E. Donovan, The Naturalist's Repository, Vol. 1; The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914 (2011) by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Linnaeus: Systema naturae (1767), 12th ed. (p. 1167, no. 298); 10th ed., 1758 (p. 713, no. 257); L'histoire naturelle, éclaircie dans une de ses parties principales, la conchyliologie, que traite des coquillages de mer, de riviere et de terre (1757) by [Antoine-Joseph] Dézallier d'Argenville (pp. 381-394); La conchyliologie, ou, Histoire naturelle des coquilles de mer... (3rd ed.) (1780) by [Antoine-Joseph] Dézallier d'Argenville; Les délices des yeux et de l'esprit, ou collection generale des differentes especes de coquillages (1771) by George Wolfgang Knorr; Oud en nieuw Oost-Indiën [general title], Vol. III (1726) by Francois Valentyn; Encyclopédie méthodique: Histoire naturelle des vers. (1792) by Jean Guillaume Bruguière.

See also Shell Symmetry, Rumphius, and the Obscenity of Shell Description.

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