Trash, treasure and everything in between

by Brian Clarey

Everyone’s talking about the embalming table. There it is, right there, the newest among piles of prized artifacts: a low, wooden recliner with elegant iron hinges, made around the turn of the century when the embalming process was done via housecall, bought from a Greensboro seller who came in with it yesterday. Ryan McCracken, the Southeast district manager for the operation, intimates the piece’s value is more shock than actual cash.

“There’s not much call for something like this,” he says, “but it’s just a cool piece.

“Nothing you want to eat off of,” he adds. It’s tough to classify the “Treasure Hunters Roadshow.” It gets quotation marks because it’s a TV show… sort of — more like an infomercial, really, but not exactly. True to the form, the 30-minute broadcast features surprisingly valuable items culled from basements, attics and yard sales, appraised by experts and translated into dollars and cents.

But in between the oh-my-goshes and can-you-believes comes the pitch: 30-second spots for Treasure Hunters Roadshow the company, offering to buy your gold by mail. And then there’s this touring ensemble, also advertised during the show, which barnstorms through communities like ours throughout North American and Europe, setting up at a hotel or conference room for five days, offering hard cash on the spot for the valuable and rare.

In the middle of the conference room of the new ACC Hall of Champions at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, the traveling pile of artifacts attests to the breadth of the operation: an old rocking horse, a toy car that looks like a larger version of the one from Monopoly, a “Have Gun Will Travel” lunchbox, comic books ranging from Superboy to Detective to Kerry Drake, a Majestic brand radio featuring Charlie McCarthy perched on the side and powered by three vacuum tubes as big as chrysalides, chests overflowing with gold jewelry, the Purple Heart of US Army Private First Class Gerald Goldsberg, silver coins, a Navy compass, a Prussian helmet with a doorknob-looking thing on top and… what the hell is that? A W & LE Gurley Level, No. 505, like a telescope with a level built in, of the kind used for land surveying since 1845.

Now, Charles Hodgin and Sally Hardin of Greensboro make their way to the door after having an old painting checked at one of the appraising tables that limn the room.

“It’s a copy I guess,” he says, leaning the old frame on the floor, a painting of a young girl in nightclothes cradling a small dog. “I seen

some about like it, not exactly like it. You can tell it’s old — [the frame]’s put together with tacks, not staples.”

But old is not the same thing as valuable. “What makes something valuable is not how old it is,” says Gary Easmont, one of a trio of field managers who scamper between the appraising tables like hummingbirds in action. “It’s how rare it is. How scarce it is. How many were made? How many are still around? And what kind of shape is it in?” Robert and Sophie Connolly have an antique, straw-blown glass candle lamp they found in his mother’s attic, “with about 40,000 copies of National Geographic,” he says. “They didn’t want those.” They also have a serving tray with perhaps a dozen actual butterflies pinned under the glass like biological specimens, laid out in a beautiful pattern. Believe it or not, butterfly trays were a thing in the 1920s and these days they can fetch a few hundred bucks or more, but Michael VanKirk, who’s manning the table, passes on this one as well as the lamp.

He’s more interested in the coins Connolly has brought, sealed in baggies and baby-food jars: pennies, dimes, silver and half dollars. VanKirk sifts through them, looking, he says, for a 1943 copper penny which could be worth between $50,000 and $1 million, or a 1909-S VDB wheat penny, which might fetch $1,500.

“In 1909 they made 72 million regular pennies,” he says. The S penny, they made 1.8 million of those. The S VDB they made about 484,000, and there are maybe 100,000 left.”

The VDB can be seen plainly etched along the bottom of a mintcondition penny, the initials of the coin’s designer, Victor David Brenner, a former counterfeiter in his home of the Soviet Union; the initials were removed during the first year of production.

Connolly’s got a regular 1909 penny, worth about a buck — not a bad return on investment, but nothing the roadshow is interested in.

“Oh darn,” Sophie says. “There is a Holy Grail for every single category,” Easmont says.

“That’s what we’re looking for.”

And while they’re at it. They’ll gladly buy your gold or silver. Easmont tells the story of a woman he dealt with a couple years ago who wanted to trade in some glass pieces she had. “Nice pieces,” Easmont remembers, “but very common.”

Then as she was leaving, she inquired about a doorstop her grandmother used, sewn into a homemade cover. When Easmont removed the cover, he was astonished — it was a 100-ounce bar of silver.

“I said, ‘That’s a $1,700 doorstop you got there,’” he says. The quote jibes with the price of silver in 2008-09; today it would be worth about $4,500. Silver’s on an upswing, don’t you know.