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They Buy Treasure

Interview with a Traveling Antiques Appraiser


I remember how much fun I had when, as a kid, I participated in the Girl Scout treasure hunts. I felt like an old-school investigator who had to exercise her intelligence and observation skills in order to solve the assigned mystery. I felt like the Latina version of Sherlock Holmes. I would’ve responded easily to the name Sherlocka.

Not only that, but having the vivid imagination of an eight-year-old kid, I imagined and wrote a story of a child who found a treasure at her school grounds in a very unlikely place: the pool. In order to access this treasure, the protagonist (me, who else?) had to dive into the deepest part of the pool, and open a little door on one of the side walls by which she could get to a room lit with torches, and filled with unexpected treasures and antiques.

Where this story came from is a mystery to me. It is as much a mystery how it ends, because I was never committed enough to finishing it. Maybe that’s why I got fixated on treasures and antiques. Who knows! Last week, my fascination for these objects got new wind in its sails: I went to witness a great Treasure Hunt that took place in Goleta.

No, it was not a community venture. A company by the name of We Buy Treasure (www.webuytreasure.com), based in North Carolina, came to our area. Its manager, Chris Wagner, was nice enough to let me in on the secrets of this business, and the ins and outs of what we need to know in order to cash in on those rare possessions that could be worth a small fortune.

Wagner travels, with his team of four, to four or five towns around the country per month. “I’m out for four or five weeks and then I’m off one week,” he said. “We come back home during the weekends. Here in Goleta, for instance, it has not been terribly busy,” he continued. “However, very good things are coming: jewelry, coins, autographed pictures of famous people.”

When I arrived at the Treasure Hunt, a gentleman with a book of autographed pictures was being helped. The collection included photos of Joe DiMaggio, Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, and John Wayne. “Precisely what we were hoping for in this area,” said Wagner.

Because “Curiosity” should’ve been my middle name, I wanted to know how someone becomes an expert appraiser. “With time and experience, but you also need to be a part of that culture, I think. In my case, as a child, my life revolved around sports: basketball, football, and also comic books. I had a great collection,” said Wagner, as he opened his eyes real big. “I always had the collector bug in my blood.”

I understand that you collected sports memorabilia and comic books, but what about other items?” I asked. “How can you judge if they’re valuable or not?” He replied, “The company has around 50 appraisers. If there’s something with which I’m not familiar, I can always reach them. We also have with a great database, where we can also research the prices that items are going for now.”

What items are going down in price? “Porcelain, newer baseball ‘80s and ‘90s cards, and same years comics are not a good investment,” Wagner said.

Furniture is also down now, he said: Good pieces of furniture are worth one third of what they were worth two years ago, or even less. “However,” he added, “I think that these will rebound rather sooner. I think furniture is a great thing to buy now if you have the money. It is certainly a great investment. A couple of years ago an antique dinner table was $3,000, and now it may be around $700. Yet, this is the type of item that will for sure bounce back.”

Can you explain how this business works?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “a person brings an item and if we think we will be able to sell it, we make an offer, and the person decides if he/she takes it or not. We offer free appraisals with the hope to have the opportunity to buy the items.” Once they have bought one, or several, items, his group ships them to North Carolina, to be sold through a couple of auction houses the company works with.

Items are usually sold in a couple of runs,” he said. “We have a very good eye. We also have customers that are looking for something in particular. When we find it, we call them and they usually pay very good money. We have a 50 percent to 75 percent profit rate, but our overhead is big, with the traveling and the shipping, plus we also have to take some losses when the items don’t sell.”

The rarest item he’s ever seen? “A Gibson mandolin from the 18th 19th century. I think we sold it for almost $100,000. We made a good profit.”

The weirdest thing ever brought to him for appraisal? “A man was in Greece in an excavation of a church and he found there an image that he told me was the oldest picture of Christ. Is that what it was or just a stain on a wall? Who knows, but that was weird.”

His favorite thing to buy? “I love maps. They’re like a window to the past. In them you can see how the world has changed.”

Have people gotten mad at him? “Sometimes we don’t even make an offer and people don’t like that. Some other people have idealized their perception of what they have and they’re expecting you to pay for a beat-up coin the price of an uncirculated one. They want the full price. We tell them the price and if they get upset, they get upset.

The final question I got to put to Wagner was, “What’s the best thing about this job?” He said, “There’s very little monotony, and I love learning new things.”

I finished my interview with Wagner only due to the fact that many more treasures came in and a waiting list started to fill up. For those of you who find treasure hunts fascinating, who like little monotony and lots of traveling, this could be an excellent career. Think about it!

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