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"That illustrious pair of true friends, Scipio and Laelius, joined one to another by the bond of affection and also by partnership in all virtues, just as they followed the path of active life with equal tread, so did they find relief together in mental relaxations. For it is agreed that they used to pick up shells and pebbles [conchulas et umbilicos] wandering on the beaches of Caieta and Laurentum."

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings (VIII.8) from the anecdote related by Cicero, De Oratore (II.22)

Two thousand years later, this idle pleasure in collecting shells along the beach at Caieta, near where Cicero himself later would be murdered (Appian, The Civil Wars, IV.19), effloresced into a mania—a conchylomania (from the Latin concha, "shellfish") that by the eighteenth-century rivaled the craze for tulips the century before. The Dutch East India Company already held a monopoly on the spice trade but also imported porcelain and shells. Exotic and newly discovered specimens were especially prized, and wealthy collectors often celebrated their prosperity either in a cabinet of curiosities or a pronkstilleven, a genre of Dutch still-life painting popular in seventeenth-century Holland. (The word derives from the Middle Dutch pronken, "to flaunt or show off"and from it, the Middle English pranken, "to adorn" and so "prank" and "prance.")

These ostentatious displays included both tulips and shells, the attraction of one being its ephemerality, the other its immutability—and both, their precious rarity. There not only was the satisfaction of collecting such works of nature and the aesthetic appeal of their variety and divine beauty, but the status that these often very expensive objects bestowed upon their owners. Collectors identified with their collections, and sought to preserve and be known by them—and be envied in turn.

The most famous painter of pronkstillevens was Balthasar van der Ast, whose Sea Snails and Fruit (c. 1635) above is in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), Dresden. Two of the shells, which are so common now, are the Tiger Cowrie (Cypraea tigris) and Marbled Cone (Conus marmoreus), which Rembrandt etched in 1650.

On April 21, 1796, the extraordinary collection of the Dutch naturalist (and entomologist) Pièrre Lyonet, an avid collector of shells and later paintings, was put at auction, more than seven years after his death. The Catalogue raisonné as du célèbre Cabinet de coquilles de feu Pierre Lyonet lists almost thirteen-hundred shells, including a Gloria maris (No. 589) for which he had paid 120 guilders (florin, abbreviated fl.). Although it is not known how much the shell realized at auction, another cone shell, a C. cedonulli (No. 473, la plus belle & plus rare) that Lyonet thought to be unique, sold for 273 fl.

But the most prized shell (No. 62) was the Nautile Vitré, as it then was called by d'Argenville. Looking like a small glassine pixie's cap, Carinaria cristata ("Glassy Nautilus") was, until the end of the eighteenth century, among the rarest of all shells. Lyonet owned the earliest recorded specimen, which seems to have been one of only two examples. It sold for 299 fl., exceeding its weight in gold. (When again put at auction three decades later, it realized 575 fl., more than twice the sum paid for a C. gloriamaris from the same sale.) Indeed, such was the fame of Lyonet's cabinet that both the Cedonulli and Nautile Vitré were illustrated among the tres rares shells appended to the second edition of d'Argenville's Conchyliologie in 1757.

In writing of Lyonet's collection, Dance briefly comments on these shells and, in the next paragraph (p. 80), compares their prices to two paintings by Jan Steen, which sold for 50 guilders, and two by Franz Hals, which sold for approximately 1 and 10 guilders, respectively. He then remarks that Johannes Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter sold for 43 guilders. The successful bidder was Pieter Fouquet, a Dutch art dealer, who originally had sold the Woman in Blue to Lyonet almost twenty years earlier, having purchased it himself in 1772 for 40 fl. (Reacquiring the painting a second time, Fouquet sold it in 1793 to a wealthy Amsterdam cloth merchant for 70 fl.)

Given the juxtaposition of the two paragraphs and that the primary source for Dance is in French (Van Seters), the assumption has been that the shells and paintings sold at the same time. In fact, as the provenance of Woman in Blue indicates, the paintings had been auctioned by Lyonet's estate five years earlier, on April 11, 1791. Although the picture was not signed nor was Vermeer's surname even known, its attribution to the Delft painter was described in the sales catalog (No. 181).

"In an inner room one sees a young lady dressed in a blue satin jacket standing at a table on which lie a small box, pearls, and papers; she seems to be reading a letter with much attention; on the white wall hangs a large map, filled in with other accessories; this piece is beautifully and naturally treated on canvas, by the Delft van der Meer, the pleasing light and dark lend it a fine appearance as is commonly characteristic of the works of this famous Master."

This conflation of the two auctions invariably occurs in the literature, recently in a 2009 article in Smithsonian. A Christie's catalog (September 23, 2004) also has the Nautile Vitré and Woman in Blue selling at the same auction in 1791, the Vermeer realizing not 43 but 41 guilders. In spite of the earlier ambiguity, it is clear from a later book (1991) that Dance himself had made the same mistake.


 Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c. 1663)

Now hanging in a dimly-lit gallery in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), the painting looks as if it might have come from the wall of a Dutch burgher's canal-side house. On permanent loan from the City of Amsterdam, which was bequeathed the painting in 1847, it was moved to the Rijksmuseum in 1885, the first of four Vermeers to hang there. (When it was displayed in 2017 as part of a show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the frame was exchanged for an elaborately carved gilded one, such being the mysteries of international art exhibitions.)

In 1757, the collection of the French ambassador to the Netherlands was auctioned for 22,500 livres, the most expensive shell (a Root Murex, Hexaplex radix, Gmelin 1791) selling for 1,700 livres, as much as a painting by Van Dyck or Poussin. It was one of just seven shells for which a Mme. Bandeville had paid 3,200 livres. Lyonet was sufficiently impressed with these prices that he considered selling his own cabinet of shells, certain that it would realize three times as much—but this was when conchylomania was at its most feverish.

Even as the French craze for shells began to wane, Lyonet hesitated to sell, as he would for the next thirty years, always in hope that he could fetch a better price. And when, in 1787, two years before his death, Lyonet finally did offer his shells to a Haarlem scientific society, his asking price still was too high. By then, political turmoil in Europe had increased. Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793 and the Dutch republic abolished by the French in 1795. The next year, a month before the posthumous auction of Lyonet's estate, Napoleon invaded Italy. As a result of such unrest, only a very few of the shells sold for more than Lyonet had paid for them, and the auction, itself, which included his collection of insects, minerals, and objets d' art, realized only 6,726 fl., less than a tenth of what he once had expected.

In 1696, when the last voyage of discovery by the Dutch East India Company was taking place, there had been a remarkable sale of twenty-one Vermeer paintings inherited by the son-in-law of his most important patron. The catalog description allows fifteen of them to be identified, including View of Delft, which sold for 200 florins; The Milkmaid, 175 fl.; Woman Holding a Balance, 155 fl.; The Music Lesson, 80 fl.; The Concert, 73 fl.; and Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid, 63 fl. The Girl with a Turban (Girl with a Pearl Earring), Vermeer's most iconic painting, sold at auction in 1881 for only 2 fl. (plus a 30% premium), the picture too damaged and dirty to have revealed the signature of the artist. Three still remain lost or missing from this list.

In 1990, Vermeer's The Concert was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, having been acquired almost a century earlier. Because her will stipulated that the exhibit remain on view exactly as she had arranged it, with no picture to be removed or replaced, the empty gilded frames still hang in silent reproach, a $10,000,000 reward unclaimed.

A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670) was the first Vermeer painting to come to market since 1921, the thirty-sixth and last painting attributed to the artist. The small canvas (measuring just 10 x 8 inches) had been the only one still in private hands when, after a decade of analysis, it finally was attributed to Vermeer. In 2004, it sold at Sotheby's for almost £16.25 million, more than three times its pre-sale estimate.

Given the notorious forgeries of Han van Meegeren (who managed to sell a fake Vermeer to Hermann Göring and confessed to the fraud at his trial after the war only to avoid an accusation of collaboration with the Nazis), it is understandable that the painting was suspect, especially given the yellow shawl, which was found to have been retouched. Twenty years before, in 1927, Van Meegeren's The Lace Maker had been declared "a genuine, perfect, and very characteristic work of Jan Vermeer of Delft" when presented for authentication to Wilhelm von Bode, the first curator of what is now the Bode Museum (Berlin), where the forgery first was exhibited.

It was not so much the imitation of Vermeer's style that convinced the experts but Van Meegeren's ability to capture what they themselves imagined that style to be. By appealing to pre-existing notions of what a Vermeer should look like, the forgery simply confirmed that sensibility. And this may explain why The Lace Maker now looks so unprepossessing, in spite of its pointillés, the small bright dabs of paint looking like sequined points of light that are so characteristic of the artist.

Later that year, the painting was sold to Andrew Mellon, who also had purchased The Smiling Girl, another forgery by Meegeren (although it is possible that both were by his mentor Theo van Wijngaarden). It, too, had been pronounced by Bode as a "characteristic work" of Vermeer, and the figure in the portrait does look very similar to The Lace Maker—only smiling. Both pictures were donated to the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), which he founded and where the pictures were exhibited. They now are in storage and not on view (to some consternation at the time, surprisingly).

One cannot feel too much sympathy for the defrauded Mellon, whose personal wealth more than doubled during his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury under President Calvin Coolidge. The Internal Revenue Service helped in the preparation of his tax returns and even suggested ways in which he could legally avoid paying taxes altogether. Of the ten schemes suggested, Mellon later admitted to employing half of them.

Headline, The New York Times, July 16, 1930, p. 33

As part of his plan to lower tax rates and establish a Board of Tax Appeals, Mellon introduced the Revenue Act of 1924. But there was an amendment that allowed the public disclosure of federal income tax returns in the press—to which he was bitterly opposed, arguing that "there is no excuse for the present publicity provision except the gratification of idle curiosity and the filling of newspaper space at the time the information is released."

Two years later, in the Revenue Act of 1926, Congress repealed the provision, eliminated the gift tax altogether, and reduced by half the surtax on large estates and income over $500,000. In 1934, when there was dust and drought in the Great Plains and the Depression had reached its height just the year before, increased resentment toward the wealthy, public disclosure of tax information was reconsidered but again defeated.

After Mellon's death in 1937, the Board absolved him of tax fraud but his estate still was obliged to pay more than $600,000 in back taxes. Adjusting for inflation, this is about $12,000,000 but still was only a fifth of what the government claimed was owed.

"A true practical philosopher, dear old Mussard lived without a care in the world in a very agreeable house he had had built for himself and in a very pretty garden he had planted with his own hands. While excavating under the terraces in this garden he had found some fossilized shells, and had found them in such quantities that his exalted imagination began to see shells everywhere in nature, and so that he came in the end to believe that the universe was made up of shells and the remains of shells and that the whole earth consisted of nothing but crushed shells. Wholly absorbed in this subject and in his singular discoveries, he became so excited by his ideas that they would in the end have combined themselves in his fevered brain into some system, which is to say some folly, if, very fortunately for his reason, but most unfortunately for his friends, to whom he was very dear and who found his house the most agreeable of sanctuaries, death had not snatched him from them through the strangest and most cruel of illnesses."

Rousseau, Confessions (II.8)

Rousseau, who completed the first six books of his Confessions in 1766–1767, uses the word conchyliomanie to describe his cousin's mad preoccupation with shells. The English equivalent "conchylomania" (or "concholomania") has not yet found its way into the revised Oxford English Dictionary, where the entry for "conchology" still derives from the first edition of 1891. There, the Elements of Conchology: or, An Introduction to the Knowledge of Shells (1776) by the British naturalist Emanuel Mendes da Costa is cited as the first use of "conchology" in English. The word seems to have appeared several years earlier, however, in Conchology, or Natural History of Shells (1771) purported to have been co-authored by da Costa. The French term conchyliologie had been introduced by d'Argenville in the first edition of his book on shells (1742) and defined in the second edition (1757).

This was at a time when mollusks were studied almost exclusively in terms of their calcareous shells, rather then the soft fleshy body within. "Malacology" (malacologie in French, first used in 1814) is the branch of zoology that deals with the study of mollusks and, although the distinction between the two words can be muddled, conchology tends to refer in popular usage to a study of the shell, malacology to the snail that produces it.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary translates concha as "mollusk" or "shellfish"; so Plautus in his play Rudens ("The Rope") speaks of fishermen returning with conchas (line 297). Later, it is the shell from which Venus herself was said to have been born (line 704). More particularly, the word also denotes the murex and oyster, as well as the shell of the mollusk, mother-of-pearl, and pearls. Although sometimes translated as cockle or mussel (as in the Smithsonian article), Plautus, in describing the fishermen's catch, uses musculus to denote mussels (line 298).

Mollusks comprise the phylum Mollusca and are classified according to the characteristics of their shells. The word derives from the French mollusque (1783), "soft-bodied" (Latin mollis, "soft," as in "mollify") and denotes several classes of snails that are protected by their exoskeletons. Gastropoda such as Conus, for example, have a single (univalve) spiraling shell, bivalves such as oysters and mussels have two valves or shells, hinged together. "Mollusk" tends to be the American spelling of the word, "mollusc," the British.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences offers a fascinating computer simulation of how mollusks construct and pigment their shells. A network of nerve fibers in the mantle, the tongue-like protrusion that wraps around the leading edge of the shell, is connected with secretory cells that stimulate the deposit of calcium carbonate, proteins, and other organic material, including pigmented compounds that are the nitrogenous waste products of metabolism. Different rates of calcium carbonate secretion determine the shape of the spiraling shell and the rhythmic secretion of pigment, the pattern. What is intriguing is that this pattern, laid down at the edge of the growing shell, itself regulates the incremental layering of shell material, the mantle sensing the calcium carbonate layer deposited the previous day to create a new layer the next.

For example, when a pigment-secreting cell inhibits the secretion of pigment by surrounding cells and the same pattern is repeated, a stripe is displayed. Pigments secreted one day that are inhibited for a few days from further secretions result in an on-off pattern of bands parallel to the growing edge. And when pigment inhibits secretion at one site but excites it at another, the pigment is secreted laterally on successive days, which produces zigzags, chevrons, and other patterns.

As beautiful as these shell patterns are, they seemingly are irrelevant to the mollusk, which typically hides during the day under rocks or in the sand and hunts at night. Too, the shell may be obscured by a rough translucent periostracum (and the algae attached to it) and the pattern not visible even to a potential mate. Rather than display or camouflage, the deposit of pigment helps the mollusk build a shell of the right shape by getting its mantle in register, so to speak. The pattern of the growing shell, itself, is only an epiphenomenon, a secondary record of neurosecretory activity. And yet, it is no less beautiful for that. Unwhorled, the shell can be imagined to look like the traces of an electroencephalogram. But instead of a graphic record of human neural activity, it is the neurological record of the mollusk as recorded in the pattern of its pigmented calcium carbonate.

Equally varied are the venoms of cone shells. Each species has evolved a unique concoction of toxic proteins, which are delivered by a sharp harpoon-like tooth in the proboscis that darts out and spears the victim, paralyzing it. Because the mollusk cannot chase its prey or risk injury when a fish or marine worm is caught, these conotoxins have evolved to immobilize almost immediately. It is this specificity of these toxins that has made the study of cone snails so important in pharmacological research—and the patterns of their shells so desirable to collectors.

There does not seem to a collective noun for shells (what has been called a noun of multitude, such as an "exaltation of larks"). But, if there were, a "Caligula of shells" might be appropriate, given the anecdote related by Suetonius, who records the emperor's planned expedition against Britain in AD 40, which did not advance beyond the English Channel.

"Finally, as if he intended to bring the war to an end, he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the Ocean, arranging his ballistas and other artillery; and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them 'spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine'" (Life of Caligula, XLVI).

References: Shell Collecting: An Illustrated History (1966) by S. Peter Dance (the standard reference for the history of shell collecting); A History of Shell Collecting (1986) by Peter S. Dance (a revised edition of Shell Collecting: An Illustrated History); Rare Shells (1969) by S. Peter Dance; Classic Natural History Prints: Shells (1991) by S. Peter Dance and David Heppel; Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (2007) by Anne Goldgar; A Prosperous Past: The Sumptuous Still Life in the Netherlands, 1600-1700 (1988) by Sam Segal [exhibition catalog]; "Mad about Shells" (August 2009) by Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine, 40(5), 44-51; "High Hopes to Fallen Dreams" (May 1971) by Alan Solem, Field Museum of Natural History: Bulletin 42(5), 11-13; "Shell Sales. II" (1942) by J. R. le B. Tomlin, Journal of Molluscan Studies, 25(1), 25-33; "The Neural Origins of Shell Structure and Pattern in Aquatic Mollusks" (2009) by Alistair Boettigera, Bard Ermentroutb, and George Ostera, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6837-6842; "Diversity of Conus Neuropeptides" (1990) by B. M. Olivera et al., Science, 249(4966), 257-263; Vermeer of Delft: Complete Edition of the Paintings (1978) by Albert Blankert; The Man Who Made Vermeers (2008) by Jonathan Lopez; Pierre Lyonet, 1706-1789: Sa Vie, ses Collections de Coquillages et de Tableaux, ses Recherches Entomologiques (1962) by W. H. Van Seters; Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Confessions (2008) translated by Angela Scholar (Oxford World's Classics); Valerius Maximus: Memorable Doings and Sayings (2000) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); Mellon: An American Life (2006) by David Cannadine; "Le Naturaliste Hollandais Pierre Lyonet, Sa Vie et ses Œuvres (1706-1789)" (1910) by Emile Hublard, Mémoires et publications de la Société des sciences, des arts et des lettres du Hainaut, 61, 1-159; "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; Catalogue raisonné, du célèbre cabinet de coquilles de feu Pierre Lyonet (April 21, 1796); La conchyliologie, ou, histoire naturelle des coquilles de mer... (3rd ed.) (1780) by [Antoine-Joseph] Dézallier d'Argenville; A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith (1908-) translated and edited by Edward G. Hawke; Johannes Vermeer (1995) edited by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Exhibition Catalog, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; "Shell Collecting: On 17th-century Conchology, Curiosity Cabinets and Still Life Painting" by Karen Leonhard, in Early Modern Zoology: The Construction of Animals in Science, Literature and the Visual Arts (2007) edited by Karl A. E. Enenkel and Paul. J. Smith, pp. 177-214; "The Revenue Act of 1926" (1926) by Roy G. Blakey, The American Economic Review, 16(3), 401-425.

The article in Smithsonian is one of very few to appear in the popular literature. The classic is "Shells Take You Over World Horizons" (July 1949) by Rutherford Platt, The National Geographic, 96(1), 33-84 (with 41 color pages), written at a time when the golden cowrie (Cypraea aurantium) was worn only by tribal chiefs and could not be exported from Fiji. Another important article is "The Magic Lure of Sea Shells" (March 1969) by Paul A. Zahl and Victor R. Boswell, The National Geographic Magazine, 135(3), 386-429.

See also Geography Cone and Duchess of Portland.

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