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Collector’s Statement

I blame it all on SCUBA diving! If it weren’t for all the marvelous sights and creatures I saw when I dove I wouldn’t have this craving for information about seashells. I started collecting shells seriously about 15 years ago. My first shell book was acquired about 20 minutes after I obtained the first shell that I couldn’t identify. That first book, by the late Gary Magnotte, was a simple snorkeler/beachcomber guide for visitors to South Florida. It introduced me to the endless varieties of seashells and to the methods for scientifically identifying them.

As I collected more during my diving trips and became a true collector, I began to search out other collectors whose interests were similar to mine. This led me to shell shows where collectors display their prized shell collectibles. It was through these associations that I realized that I was almost as interested in the science of shells as I was in the shells themselves. That interest led me to reference works that described how new species are named, how they are analyzed and compared to other similar species, and where the species lives. In researching the scientific names for my shells, I found that many references made to these species were to very ancient publications, some, in fact, were more than 200 years old. My curiosity was piqued, since I knew where I had found the shells, as to how the ?old guys’ had found or acquired their specimens. I went to my local public library and found that these reference works were not available. A helpful librarian suggested that I try the Marine Science Library at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fl. FAU had received a donation of shells and shell literature from a family in Delray Beach. This collection contained several early works on shells. I was told that the books were in the rare book room and required a professor’s permission to be viewed. I had met an FAU professor at a shell show and prevailed upon him to allow me access to the collection. That single event convinced me to begin building a reference library of my own. I don’t stand in lines very well; waiting for a book was not my idea of a productive day. It was worth the wait, however, because the quality of the illustrated figures and information was outstanding. I realized then that I had to develop a strategy to acquire the foundation works in the area of conchology (the study of shells).

In the 1750s a scientist named Carolus Linnaeus (or Linne’) proposed a system of classification of all plants and animals called binomial nomenclature, from the Latin bi-two nomen name. Linnaeus produced Systema Naturae, where he classified all known plants and animals by this binomial system. Unfortunately, he created his system from shells that were in museums or took them from earlier published works. The older publications became very important to systematic research as they formed the foundation of the early names. The early works by Lister, Buonanni, Rumphius, Poli, and Gaultheria are referred to as pre-Linnaean works.

My first antiquarian shell book was Lamarck’s Conchology, by E. A. Crouch. I traded seashells that I had found on Bahamas dive trips for the book. In trading a bunch of shells for a hand-colored 170-year old book, I felt as if I were stealing. What a deal!!! As I studied the book, I understood why it had been written. In the late 1700s and early 1800s authors introduced many new species, but many of the publications merely documented a specimen in a private collection. The lack of a pictorial reference caused much confusion as there was no standard system to describe a species. Lamarck, a French naturalist, proposed a substantive expansion to the classification for mollusks that Linnaeus had introduced some 50 years earlier. Since Napoleon was busy about the continent pillaging, the flow of information between Europe and Great Britain was very limited. Crouch’s book was the first that illustrated pictorially the new introductions proposed by Lamarck. It took some 20 years for the British to accept and integrate Lamarck’s genera into the Linnaean system. In the mid-1800s the British and the French were the leaders in publishing these natural history works. Entrepreneurs promoted shell collecting as a method for aristocrats to display their cultural contributions, and whole cottage industries were created to support these endeavors. Shells were such a prized possession by some wealthy patrons that in a sale of the Pierre Lyonnet collection in Amsterdam, a now priceless painting by Vermeer, The Lady in Blue Reading, brought 43 guilders at auction. In the same auction, five lots later, a Conus cedonulli, a shell worth about $100 today, sold for 178 guilders! How times have changed.

As I acquired more books, I found that many had interesting stories associated with them. Competition between countries to become the foremost authorities in areas of arts and sciences was the rule of the day. Renowned naturalists were recruited by kings and queens in much the same fashion as professional sports players are recruited today. The books I have collected help tell and preserve these stories. I, for one, feel that they are stories worth preserving. Old naturalist colorplate works are popular now for their value as framed prints. It is a sad commentary on our times that many of these titles are broken apart and are now worth more as decorative prints than they are to the field of natural history. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

— Wayne Harland

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