Treasure? [photo by Susan Petersen]


The Treasure Hunters Road Show brings out area hopefuls with hordes of treasures … and some trash

It was a dreary November night in Chesterton. But the Hilton Garden Inn was a beacon of hope for locals who were looking to cash in on stuff that’s been collecting dust in their curios and attics for years.

The Treasure Hunters Roadshow was in town, and there was no shortage of folks filling the green chairs along the entrance to the hotel’s meeting room, this author included. Each of us clutched a bag, a box or a cart full of stuff. We all were hoping we’ve been sitting on something for years that will let us call work the next morning and tell our bosses, “Sayonara, sucker!” Could it really be possible?

Paul Thomas is the official transaction auditor for THR & Associates, the Roadshow’s parent company. He’s the guy who triages everything brought to the tables. He is quick to put a damper on the flame of greed as many of us harbor as we presented their valuables for his initial assessment. “A lot of this stuff comes from yard sales,” he says. “People buy things like they’ve seen on American Pickers or Pawn Stars, and think, ‘Eureka! I’ve stumbled on something that’ll make me rich!’ That’s just not the case.”

Unfortunately, the economy has prompted many of us to ransack our jewelry boxes and silverware drawers, trying to get top dollar for the few valuables anyone’s lucky enough to own. But what exactly IS valuable, nowadays? Thomas has a pretty good idea. “Military items are always in demand,” he notes. “Mostly pre World War I and the German World War II items.” Another hot commodity: Vintage guitars and old Rock-‘n-Roll memorabilia. “Lots of people want to go back to the roots of music,” he states. “They’re nostalgic.” Plus, anything gold or silver. Precious metals are always in high demand.

Thomas has more than a layman’s knowledge of the markets, but is quick to point out that he and the other men working in the room are not appraisers. “We don’t appraise an item’s value. None of us are appraisers. We’re in the business of buying. We know what types of things our buyers are looking for, and we have a good idea of what they’ll pay. We make an offer, and our customers are welcome to accept it or walk away.”

When queried about how this Roadshow’s different from that other, more famous PBS entity, Thomas becomes a bit cautious. “They’re in the business of selling insurance,” he notes. “We’re in the business of buying.” Touchy subject, maybe, considering that THR & Associates, based in Springfield, Illinois, is in litigation regarding the use of the Roadshow name and other issues. The company’s owner, Jeff Parsons, has gone on record establishing what he feels are the key differences between his and the more well-known entity. Although THR & Associates is not an accredited business with the Better Business Bureau (considered by most to be a sort of watchdog for business ethics), his company does currently enjoy an A- rating.  "We deal in used merchandise," Parsons is quoted on the BBB site. "We don't appraise. We tell people what we're going to pay. It boils down to what a person will sell something for and what we're willing to pay for it."

However, on this night, the folks waiting their turn for examination aren’t really concerned with legality of who owns the right to call themselves a Roadshow. Really, we’re all here just to see what we can get for stuff we’ve been too busy or too lazy to put on eBay. But be warned: Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s valuable.

These sage words come from Field Manager Eric Helms, a man who holds an engineering degree from Georgia Tech as well as an MBA, and who now travels around the country as he has for the past two years, running this show. Helms said an item’s worth has far more to do with scarcity and condition. When asked what kinds of things he sees a lot of, he laughs. “Beanie Babies. Lots of them. We’ve had people bring them in by the sack full. But they’re not worth the effort it takes to burn ‘em,” he said. He’d like you to leave your Beanies at home, thank you very much.

Becky Bieker of Chesterton has a bag full of jewelry. Her number is called, and she makes her way over to Gary Sandifar, one of the Treasure Hunter’s buyers. She pulls out several shiny gold bracelets, a necklace. “I have no idea what this is worth,” she admits. “This is jewelry that’s been lurking around. I keep meaning to go on eBay, but I never got around to it.”

Sandifar picks up the first bracelet. “This is costume,” he notes, placing it aside. He picks up another. “Costume,” he dismisses again. How does he know so quickly? “Markings,” he says. “This one’s a Monet. They make costume jewelry. You can also tell by the types of clasps.” He holds it up for Bieker to get a closer look. “See the way it gets thick at the clasp here? That’s one way to tell. This isn’t gold.” Bieker laughs nervously, clutching at her collar a bit.

“I didn’t know,” she admits sheepishly. Few of us do, really.

After an hour, it is my turn at the table. That’s one thing I didn’t expect, coming here—the wait time. “Everybody deserves a fair chance to have us look at their stuff,” Thomas tells me. “Depending on how busy we are and what kinds of things people have brought, it could be a half-hour, it could be two hours. We’ll give you a window, an estimate, but this isn’t an in-and-out thing.”

I get Randy Lower as my buyer. Randy’s a teddy bear of a guy with a ready smile and a sparkle in his eye. “Make me happy, I joke with him.” He is nonplussed. “Show me what you got,” he returns. My family heirlooms, the things that are gonna get me to the Caribbean, are five old coins I’ve been ferreting away for most of my life. I have an 1879 dollar, a 1903 dollar, a 1944 Mercury dime, a 1936 buffalo head nickel, and a 1922 Liberty dollar. A few years ago, I did a little snooping on eBay to determine their worth, but was quickly overwhelmed and confused by the myriad of coins and information out there. Really, I have no idea what I’ve got. Going to one of these kinds of events really is an act of faith for the uninitiated. Some might call it irresponsible to go in so uneducated, but who the hell has the time to research the price and market for this stuff? 

Lower takes a look at each of my coins as we chat. “What brought you into this job?” I ask him. He came from a previous career in real estate. “Starvation,” was his reply. He’s been at it for a year now, and he’s quick to tell me that it’s the people he meets who make his job worth it. Those human connections are what keeps Randy coming back for more of this 12-hours-a-day, six days a week job that separates him from his wife for long stretches. These guys set up the room, work the tables, then break everything down and pack it up to head to the next town. They’ll do 40 to 50 shows a year. But the pay’s decent and the job is never boring. Lower tells of a little old lady he met in L.A. a few months back. “She really didn’t have anything of value. Yard sale stuff,” he says. “But we started talking about life. She had breast cancer that was cured and then came back. The doctors cut her all up.” He seems visibly shaken as he recounts the story. “I ended up helping her back to her car, and asked her to give me a hug as she was leaving. She wouldn’t let go of me, she was shaking. She told me, ‘I didn’t come here to sell something. I came here to meet you.’” His eyes are teary. It’s clear that those connections move him.

But Lower’s also a businessman. I am excited about my coins, but he’s quick to burst my bubble. “They’re all common, just so you know,” he tells me. After entering some numbers into his laptop, he turns the screen to show me the verdict: $55.00.

“That’s it?” I teased him. He looks amused. “Hey, you came in here with five coins at a face value of $3.15. You did alright.” Truthfully, I have no idea if this was a good deal for me or not. But you know what? Those coins have been sitting in a drawer for years, and putting things on eBay is a pain in the ass. I’ll take the money. It comes to me in a quickly printed out check I had to give my driver’s license to receive. That was it. I suspect most of the people who were in this room over the past few days will feel the same way about their offers. Hey, $50 will buy me a nice dinner out with the husband.

There were a few “wow!” moments so far in the Treasure Hunter’s Roadshow stint in Chesterton. Some gentleman earlier in the day brought in five silver ingots he’d been holding onto as an investment for a couple of years. Helms lets me hold one of the heavy bricks, each one weighing in at around 8.33 pounds. “You’re looking at $10,000 right there,” he tells me. That’s more value in one item than I’ve ever held in my life. They really are a thing of beauty.

(Publisher’s Note: Susan provided this excellent piece back in November, but a glitch in our system had made it impossible to share it with you until now. We hope that you enjoy it and we thank Susan for her extraordinary patience.)