Finding Happiness With Metal Detectors

By Allan Richter

  • Aug. 15, 1999

”THERE’S something,” Hugo Vega said suddenly, halting the metal detector that he had been sweeping across the sand in slow arcs. He listened as the detector beeped into his headphones. ”Sounds like a coin,” he said.

Mr. Vega took a clump of wet Long Beach sand with his scoop, plucked out a shiny quarter and deposited it into a mesh bag around his waist. A quarter mile of beachfront later, he was $2.50 richer.

Mr. Vega, 50, has retrieved a fair share of garbage, including rusted nails, soda-can pull-tabs, even hypodermic needles in his 13 years of detecting. But he estimated that he has also found more than $30,000 in jewelry and $5,000 in coins.

”I’m a wet-sand guy,” Mr. Vega said, staking a position with the die-hards among Long Island’s estimated 1,500 treasure hunters. Most treasure seekers avoid the hard work of digging in heavy wet sand, even though it’s a natural spot to find jewelry lost by swimmers as cool ocean waves finish the ring-loosening job begun by tanning oil. ”If you throw a Frisbee into the water and you have suntan lotion on, there goes your ring,” Mr. Vega said.

he Island’s prospectors are hardly homogenous in the places they look or the things they seek. Some look only for historical relics and avoid the beach. Most stick to the dry sand and don’t care whether their coins were minted just a few years ago. A few hard-core hunters don wetsuits and wade up to their necks with sophisticated waterproof detectors and floating sand sifters. From there it’s just a degree or two of separation from the big-time treasure hunters who search the globe for sunken galleons.

But whether the take is doubloons or dimes, the hobbyists all seem to share a passion for the thrill of the surprise. Archeologists say human artifacts dating back 10,000 years can be found on Long Island. Metal relics from the early 17th-century arrival of Europeans onward are most likely to send signals bouncing through prospectors’ detectors. But sharp-eyed treasure hunters have retrieved stone arrowheads and other non-metal artifacts from the region’s once-dense Indian populations.

”The metal detector is like a time machine; it takes you into the past,” said Michael Chaplan, a Richmond Hill, Queens, epidemiologist and treasure hunter whose searches have turned up a Lincoln campaign button and a Revolutionary War cannonball. His oldest find: a fishtail-shaped stone arrowhead from an aboriginal group called the Orient Focus Culture that lived on the Island about 3,000 years ago. ”You never know what’s going to be in that hole that you’re going to dig,” Mr. Chaplan said.

Even veteran treasure hunters said they would have a tough time making a living from prospecting with metal detectors. Nonetheless, some enthusiasts come by the occasional windfall.

Lillian Rade and her husband, Ron King, were scouring an East Hampton potato field near their home nine years ago when Ms. Rade found a rare 340-year-old New England sixpence. The $35,200 the coin fetched at auction became a down payment on their home.

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