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Singular Stockpile of Seashells Shipped Straight to Smithsonian

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Times Staff Writer

James McLean stood by Thursday as 10 red, yellow and orange “slit shells,” shaped in spirals like toy spinning tops--and very rare--were taken from display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“It was one of the better shell displays we had,” the mollusk curator said sadly. “They come from very deep water on rocky slopes, none any shallower than about 400 feet, outside the range of scuba divers. Fishing boats don’t get them often, because they cannot drag their nets without snagging them.”

They were the kind of shells William D. Bledsoe, the “connoisseur’s collector” who died last December in his Brentwood home, was most famous for: the rarest, the most beautiful and the largest.

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Now the entire Bledsoe collection of nearly 9,000 seashells has been donated by his family to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

The slit shells, which the peripatetic Bledsoe had loaned the local museum for display six years ago, are being crated and shipped to Washington, along with the rest of his cones, volutes, cowries and murieids.

The Smithsonian has the largest shell collection in the world, said M. G. Harasewych, a curator and mollusk expert there.

“It’s unusual to find a seashell that we don’t have. Incredibly, Bledsoe’s collection had 200 to 300 species that we lacked,” he said.

Bledsoe, a quiet bachelor who died at 57 of a heart attack, had been collecting for about 15 years, his sister-in-law Katie Bledsoe said in a telephone interview from Terre Haute, Ind., where Bledsoe was born and reared.

He went to California to attend UCLA, she added, “and never left.”

Her husband, Walter, inadvertently got his brother started collecting shells, she said, when Bledsoe stopped to visit on his way to Sannibel Island in Florida. Walter Bledsoe handed him an old pail, she said, and asked him to “pick up some seashells for our kids.”

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Soon Bledsoe, who had independent means and did not work, was a student of shells.

“Anything he got into he studied intensely and intimately,” Katie Bledsoe said, adding that he also collected classic automobiles and Leica cameras, and was a proficient amateur photographer.

Bledsoe quickly dropped his pail and was known as someone who built his collection by buying from dealers, Harasewych said. The curator served as a judge at large shell shows around the country and became aware of Bledsoe about 10 years ago because his displays regularly won the most important contests.

Many of the rarest shells first show up in private collections, McLean noted, because they cost as much as $10,000 apiece and museums cannot afford them.

“Usually they’re from tropical areas in the Third World,” he said, “and natives have learned their value. In some places in the Philippines, the entire earnings of a village may be based on getting shells from deep water, just for the purpose of selling to wealthy collectors.”

Bledsoe’s family decided to give the collection to the Smithsonian because he had told them he did not want his shells to end up in storage somewhere, unseen.

Katie Bledsoe said, “He wanted to share this with the world.”

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