Precious metals prices boost interest in treasure hunting
Most people look at Irwin Park and see the obvious — neatly trimmed grass, a few swing sets and a baseball field.
But Jim St. Antoine sees his field of dreams.
A few times a week, St. Antoine kisses his wife, grabs his metal detector and heads to the park to join the growing number of treasure hunters across the nation in search of the next big find.
Experts attribute the hobby's dramatic growth to the skyrocketing price of gold and silver, the tough economy and the popularity of TV shows where treasure hunters using metal detectors make big discoveries.
One of the nation's top metal-detector retailers, Kellyco Inc. of Winter Springs, Fla., saw annual sales climb by 63 percent to $24.8 million from 2005 — when precious metal prices began to soar — until 2010.
Kellyco chief executive officer Stuart Auerbach, who founded his company after returning from World War II, in which he used metal detectors to sweep for mines, said sales of some types of treasure-hunting equipment has increased from 30 orders a month to 300 orders a week.
Since 2005, gold has gone from $500 an ounce to more than $1,600 an ounce, while silver increased from $7 to more than $35 an ounce. Despite some volatility in these markets, experts predict gold prices will climb to more than $2,000 an ounce this year.
"No other hobby I can think of has a return like this," said Ed Burke, vice president of the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archaeology Clubs. "You can pay $800 for a metal detector and make up the return on it the first time, if you're lucky."
Metal detector clubs in Western Pennsylvania are thriving, but for every club member there are several others not affiliated with a group, Burke said. Clubs in Monroeville, Greensburg and Butler have about 150 active members, he said.
Burke said many supplement their incomes by selling the coins, jewelry and other items found during their searches.
Initial costs vary — metal detectors range in price from $50 to more than $40,000. Special detectors are available for use on beaches and in water and others are designed to detect pure-gold nuggets found in the West.
Auerbach considers any detector under $125 "a junker."
"The better detector is going to find more, find it more often, and find it deeper. It'll find the stuff other inexpensive detectors might miss," he said.
Among treasure hunters, the stories of amateurs unearthing valuable relics are legendary.
In 2009, an amateur treasure hunter living alone on a disability pension in England stumbled upon a stash of Anglo-Saxon artifacts, thought to be worth $1.6 million, in a rural field.
For St. Antoine, 68, of Irwin, the hobby has been both recreational and therapeutic for decades. A stroke in 2001 paralyzed his right side.
"They wanted me to go for therapy at the hospital," he said. "I said, 'I'll do my own therapy.' And I went out metal detecting."
Then came the news five months ago that he had prostate cancer. He picked up his metal detector and headed outside.
"This helps get my mind off tough situations," he said.
St. Antoine has found thousands of items, including hundreds of house keys, an overflowing box of Hot Wheels toy cars, costume jewelry and Chuck E. Cheese coins. Then there are the more prized finds — the lead bullets, class rings and gold watches.
"It's the thrill of never knowing what you're going to dig up next," St. Antoine said. "I've never been anywhere where I didn't come home without anything."
He returned two of the class rings to their owners. He tosses the loose quarters in a rock tumbler to clean and bag them for weekends in Atlantic City casinos with his wife.
He doesn't talk about the value of his finds but says he is protective of one item, a lead button marked "CSA" found at a log cabin on a Delmont farm. He discovered the initials stand for Confederate States of America, and the button may be from a military uniform.
"It probably doesn't have much (monetary) value," he said. "It intrigues me. How could a Confederate button get this far north?"
There are many ways the button could have landed there, said William Blair, a Penn State history professor.
"It was not unusual for soldiers to take such things from the enemy and bring them back home as souvenirs," Blair said. "Buttons could come home with veterans; they could then be traded or passed to family members."
Thousands of historical novelties have been found all around Western Pennsylvania, said Vic Kamer, a former officer of the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archaeology Clubs.
"Pennsylvania goes back 200 years, and people lost stuff," said Kamer, 62, of Sarver, Butler County.
He's most proud of a dog license he found in a park in Meadville, Crawford County. It's marked No. 32 and dated 1875.
Snakes on a find
St. Antoine once got more than he bargained for when he and a friend explored the banks of the Youghiogheny River. They picked up gold coins and pieces of lead from what was a river crossing for covered wagons.
"There were so many snakes. Oh, my God, they were everywhere, and I don't like snakes," he said. "We always said we'd go back in late fall when the snakes were gone, but never have. It's been 20 years."
He's always careful to abide by the basic tenets of treasure hunters — if you dig to retrieve an item, repair the dig site and never search private property without the owner's permission.
He's scoured most of the local parks — Legion Keener Park in Latrobe has been the most rewarding — and hot spots in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and New Jersey.
St. Antoine said just about any place can be fertile ground. "I've been going to Irwin Park for 35 years and still find silver coins there," he said.
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