Are rare seashells a good retirement investment?
I had to smile when this question was posed, because seashells have long been a passion of mine, and I still receive great pleasure from the cabinet where I display the shells I gathered over the years. Note that I used the word "gathered" rather than "collected." My shells were taken from the water by me or by someone from my immediate family. Collectors buy and trade shells, which I never did.
While my shells are a source of quiet satisfaction, they have little monetary value because none of them are rare. If I depended on them for my retirement, I would be in real trouble. One of my shells, called Conus gloriamaris or glory of the seas cone, was once extremely valuable. When I began shell gathering in the 1960s, there were only a few known specimens. The saga of gloriamaris points up the hazard of investing in rare seashells.
What happened was that the habitat of the shell was discovered, large numbers of them were collected and offered in the marketplace, and their price plummeted. I read about it at the time in a newsletter put out by a museum with a large shell collection. The culprits were identified as two Australian divers.
Years later in 1988, my wife and I with two other couples chartered a boat in the Solomon Islands for a diving excursion. The boat was owned by an Australian diver named Brian Baily, who turned out to be one of the two divers who broke the world market for gloriamaris. I asked Brian how he found their habitat and he told me the whole story, which I later confirmed by going to the site and snagging a gloriamaris for myself.
The site was off Guadalcanal, an island that saw fierce fighting during World War II. After the island was secured, it became a supply depot for the entire Pacific war operation. When the war ended, there was an enormous supply of war materiel on the island that it did not pay to repatriate but which had to be removed from Guadalcanal. So the army loaded all this stuff on barges, floated the barges down the big river that bisects Guadalcanal, and dumped it in the ocean about half a mile from shore.
Included in the materials that were dumped were artillery shells with brass casings. As the years passed, the market price of brass rose to the point where it became profitable for divers to salvage these shells, which is what attracted Brian to the scene. He was there for the brass and discovered a treasure trove of shells.
I asked Brian if he would take me to the site, and he did. The water there was about 70 feet deep and the current was so strong that Brian took the boat's anchor down with him to prevent our boat from drifting away. The bottom was mud, visibility was about 3 feet, and there was no coral and no fish. It was by far the most unattractive place I have ever dived. No diver would ever go there, absent the unique set of circumstances that drew Brian to the site.
In retrospect, it might appear that the circumstances that drove down the value of gloriamaris were so unusual that they should be ignored in considering future investments in rare shells. The problem with that argument is that Gloria Maris was not the first rare shell that became a common shell after its habitat was discovered. In the 18th century, the precious wentletrap shell was so valuable that counterfeit versions were fabricated in China using rice paste. Today this shell is readily available in shell shops.
The bottom line of this history for retirement planning - which has nothing to do with seashells - is that in developing their plan retirees should define their worst case and make sure they can live with it. A retirement planning system my colleagues and I are building will help them do that.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jack Guttentag is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Comments and questions can be left at http://www.mtgprofessor.com.