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The Species Seekers Quiz: A Different Kind of Precious

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 24, 2012

Who or what is The Precious Wentletrap?

1.  An orchid once regarded as a remedy for syphilis.

2.  An audacious neo-punk  Trapp Family tribute band.

3.  A bird so rare that a half-dozen biological explorers lost their lives in the search for it.

4.  An unusually ornate shell.

And the answer is

The Precious Wentletrap, a pale  spiral of shell enclosed by slender vertical ribs, first appeared in print in Georg Eberhard Rumpf’s The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, an 18th century guide to the wonders of the East Indies.  Many collectors then thought that only God could have created such a “work of art.”  This religious spin enabled the wealthy to present their lavish collections of wentletraps and other precious specimens as a way of glorifying God rather than themselves.  During the height of the Dutch shell madness (right up there with tulipmania, though less well known),  a single shell once sold for more than Vermeer’s now priceless “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”

You can read more in The Species Seekers, or check out this article I wrote for Smithsonian called “Mad About Shells.”

 

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