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In Search of Buried Booty

March 03, 1990|PETER BENNETT

Even if you weren't one of the four winners in California's record-breaking lottery last month, there's still hope for riches beyond your wildest dreams.

Within months, or even weeks, you could be up to your ankles in gold and silver bracelets, chains, rings, watches and rare coins.

All you need is a little instinct, intuition and intellect, and one metal detector.

Last year, Bob Guthrie, the 50-year-old owner and operator of the Prospector's Shop in Helena, Mont., found a $20,000 gold nugget in the Arizona desert with his metal detector. He keeps 3,000 other nuggets, all recovered with a metal detector, in a safe deposit box.

In 1983, Jim Owens, a Santa Barbara collector, discovered a $5 "Schultz" coin while searching the beach near Monterey after a rough storm. The 1851 gold piece later sold for $45,000 at auction.

But you don't have to go to Montana or even Monterey to begin collecting treasure with a metal detector.

In 1984, Leona and Marilyn Yost, a mother-and-daughter treasure-hunting team from San Diego, detected a $12,000 platinum ring studded with sapphires and a two-carat diamond while combing their local beach.

In January, Glen Ison, a former radar officer with the U.S. Army, found a $1,250 gold nugget ring near Huntington Beach Pier to add to the other 26,000 coins and scores of rings, medallions, knives and necklaces he has collected in less than four years of treasure hunting.

The reasons for metal detecting are almost as varied as the treasures that lie below one's feet.

James Straight, author of "Follow the Dry Washers," a metal detecting book published by Mountain Publications in Crestline, claims treasure hunting is his direct link to a bygone era.

"If I find an 1888 Indian head penny, I start thinking about the last person who might have held that coin," says the Rialto-based writer and part-time metals shop instructor. "You kind of touch the hand of the past."

For Evelyn Karr of La Palma, who found one penny and a worm during her first 10 minutes of metal detecting on a recent rain-soaked outing at Griffith Park, treasure hunting offers the explorer new worlds to conquer.

"It gives me a whole new perspective on life," says Karr. "I used to drive down the street and admire a pretty yard; now I look for old houses, torn-up streets and construction sites in search of rare coins."

Jesse Owings, a 14-year-old student at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, also waxes philosophical about his weekend pursuit.

"It's relaxing," says Owings, who recently joined his grandfather, Sam Duncan, for a day of metal detecting at Zuma Beach. "It gets me out of the rat race. Most of my friends don't even know I do this."

Vickie Wyatt, a member of the Antelope Valley Treasure Hunters Society in Lancaster, compares her hobby to fishing.

"Sometimes you get skunked, and sometimes you strike it rich," says Wyatt. "I just know that I'd rather have a pouch full of coins instead of a net full of fish."

Walt Stewart, a member of the West Coast Prospectors and Treasure Hunters Assn. (West Coasters) who operates a street sweeper when he isn't metal detecting, likens his pastime to compulsive gambling.

"It's like a disease that you can't get rid of," says Stewart. "I just have to look; that's all there is to it."

Actually, the odds may be more in Stewart's favor than he thinks. The Fisher World Treasure News, a publication of Fisher Research Laboratory in Los Banos, Calif., the oldest maker of metal detectors, reported in its 1987 fall issue that government accountants say Americans lost 200 million pounds of silver coins between 1900 and 1950.

In the same article, it was calculated that 65 billion bottle caps, the bane of all metal detectors, are also thrown out in the United States every year.

"The treasure is definitely out there," says Fisher president Jim Lewellen. "All you've got to do is get out there and look for it."

According to Sue Thompson, president of the Western chapter of the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archeological Clubs (FMDAC) in Menlo Park, there are 8,000 members and 200 clubs in the federation actively searching for treasure nationwide.

"You won't believe some of the places they look," says Thompson. "Besides the usual beaches and parks, they search out ghost towns, old row houses, abandoned school yards, deserted ski resorts, a popular lover's lane in town, old swimming holes, or just about wherever they think people might have been."

For Bill Meers of San Gabriel, a member of the Prospector's Club of Southern California, a trip to an abandoned outhouse often yields rare coins.

Fellow club member Kirk VanSooy prefers to explore squirrel and gopher mounds in old parks that are supposedly worked out.

"If you want to squirrel away some of those older coins, gopher it," VanSooy wrote in the 1988 March issue of "Western & Eastern Treasures," a popular metal detecting magazine.

The number of treasure-laden sites you can explore with a metal detector is limited only by your imagination.

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