Florida's Metal Detector Fanatics Fight High Tide and Murky Laws

Brian Deutzman braces himself against the pounding surf just off South Beach and slowly waves his fluorescent-colored metal detector underwater. His eyes narrow as faint electronic beeps resonate in his oversize headphones. Tall, pale, and draped in a thin white shirt, he looks like a combination of a hipster Ghostbuster and an actual ghost. Beachgoers point and laugh while children swim around in circles, trying to find out what he's looking for.

Wooomp. Deutzman freezes as he hears a long robotic tone. The 24-year-old scavenger finds plenty of trash, from rusted batteries to soda can tabs to enough pennies to cancel out a thousand wishes. But that noise means he's found something larger. It's the same tone he heard when he nabbed a priceless 19th-century watch and when he stumbled upon a full diamond grill.

Deutzman reaches into the sand, feels something solid, and pulls out a half set of human teeth. "It's from some castaway at sea," he says, noting the teeth with gold dental work will net $75 on eBay if they're real.

It's just another surreal day in the life of a metal detector scavenger. Hordes of geezers drive to South Florida's beaches every week to search for petty change and pass the time. There are 30,000 to 50,000 of these folks in the United States, including thousands in Florida, according to Mark Schuessler, president of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs. For the vast majority, beachcombing is a way to play pirate and supplement their social security checks.

A hardy few such as Deutzman make a living finding discarded treasure. It's a daily crapshoot made all the more difficult by a mess of state, federal, and local scavenger laws that baffle detectors. But Deutzman says it's the only way he wants to live.

"They're doing it without a purpose," he says of his geriatric competitors. "I'm doing it to survive."

The first metal detector was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in a last-ditch, futile effort to find an assassin's bullet inside President James Garfield, but handheld machines weren't sold commercially until the 1960s. Detectors were first used by troops during the Korean War to sweep for mines, and a few soldiers took such a liking to the equipment that they pined for it when they returned to the States.

One such enthusiast was Stuart Auerbach, a South Florida native who fell in love with the machines while in Korea. After searching for mines, he would sweep for coins that he'd enclose with love letters to his wife. When his tour ended, he took a surplus Army detector back to Miami. As he was combing the beach one day in 1955, a stranger approached and asked how he could get in on the action. A business idea was born, and Auerbach's firm, Kellyco, has been in operation ever since.

The hobby has grown as amateurs have uncovered amazing finds. In 1989, a Mexican scavenger stumbled upon a nearly 27-pound hunk of gold in the Sonoran Desert. A retired English electrician sweeping the countryside in 2001 found a Bronze Era cup valued at $400,000 and later sold it to the British Museum. Perhaps most incredible of all, in 2009 a Scot named Dave Booth discovered $1.5 million worth of ancient necklaces one hour into his first metal-detecting session.

Today, the hobby is hitting an all-time peak. Last year, Kellyco moved 800 to 1,000 machines a day during the holidays, setting a new sales record, in part because a wave of reality TV shows such as Alaska Gold and Swamp Hunters makes the sport seem exciting and lucrative. (Bray Entertainment, co-creator of Pawn Stars, is casting a new show about Florida treasure hunters.)

"In all my years, I've never seen so many companies run out of ­inventory and parts," Auerbach says.

The majority of people picking up metal detectors are amateurs looking for a fun diversion. But a hard-core few can make serious bucks or legit historical finds. Take for instance Gary Drayton, who might be the most famous detector in Florida.

The 52-year-old Pompano Beach house painter and paper hanger has found at least $40,000 worth of scrap gold since he moved here in 1989, he says. His most famous discovery is the "green-eyed monster," a 300-year-old Spanish ring with nine emeralds that he found on the Treasure Coast in 2005. He says the piece was appraised at $300,000 to $500,000.

Others get into detecting more for the history than the cash. Bob Spratley, who lives in Saint Augustine, took up digging full-time after retiring as a real estate broker in 2004 and has found scores of artifacts. "I could probably fill a couple of museums," says the 66-year-old, whose 3,000-square-foot home is filled with relics. He's never sold anything he's found. "It's our heritage, and I don't think it should be sold," he says. "I save history; I don't sell history."

On the gray-hair-dominated metal detector scene, Deutzman is a very different kind of character. Born in Hollywood, Florida, he caught the bug after getting a detector as a Christmas gift when he was 12. Days later, he uncovered a $6,500 platinum engagement ring set and decided from that point, he'd never do "real work," he says.

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