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Hunting for treasures

Illinois company makes stop in Saranac Lake

April 7, 2012
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - Carol Keeton's job is to be a treasure hunter.

Keeton works for THR & Associates, a company based out of Springfield, Ill.

"We travel around and look for treasures," Keeton said. "It's awesome, and you don't have to be a pirate to do it."

Article Photos

Treasure hunter Carol Keeton examines a gold necklace to determine its worth Wednesday afternoon at the Best Western in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

Keeton is a team manager, and though she's from Fort Ann, she travels all over the Northeast. She often goes as far north as Maine and as far south as Pennsylvania.

This week, she was in Saranac Lake, stationed at the Best Western to evaluate and buy treasures from people here.

There's another THR employee from the Northeast she normally travels with, but that person was sick this week, so the company sent Patty, an employee from Peoria, Ill., to join her.

Before she started this job, Keeton worked for a convenience store chain and a hospital. She's less than bubbly when talking about those jobs, but when she discusses her current career, her face lights up and she starts telling stories about the people she's met and the things she's seen. It's clear that it's only with her current job that she found her calling.

"I love my job. What better job is there, I mean, for a woman?" Keeton said. "I love to travel and meet people. It's great. And where else can you go and buy diamonds and gold, and play with it, and spend someone else's money to do it? It's the best job in the world, come on!"

THR is the biggest company of its kind in the U.S., and it has more than 100 teams traveling the U.S., Canada and England at any given time, Keeton said.

They consider buying a variety of things, from silver and gold - including dental gold - to coins and other old currency, jewelry, military items, historical documents, autographs, rare books, sports memorabilia, old toys, comic books and musical instruments.

The company buys people's valuables, then it has various outlets for distributing them. It will send things made of gold and silver to refineries. But for collectibles and other items, it has contacts with collectors and auction houses.

"Or if it's something really cool like Johnny Cash's bed, the owner puts it in his house," Keeton said.

THR bought one of the country music legend's beds for $30,000 at a past show.

That's one of Keeton's favorite parts of the job - the unexpected, interesting things that people bring in.

"I like the oddities. They're fun," Keeton said. "You never know what you're going to see."

She herself bought a traveling communion kit, from back in the old days when priests traveled from town to town. She said the set was sterling silver in a leather case, with containers for the wine, water and communion wafer patties.

"It had the whole thing in there," Keeton said. "It was really awesome."

Two weeks ago, she bought a lithograph from 1886.

Probably the rarest, most valuable thing she ever bought was a 1907 Saint Gaudens $20 gold coin.

She's also bought some World War II swords and other military items, like bayonets.

She once got a rare comic book - an early Superman story that introduced a new character.

This week in Saranac Lake, Keeton said there was a steady stream of people coming in, though it was a little slow since so many people were away on spring break.

But that didn't mean it was unproductive. On Tuesday, she bought two guitars from the same person.

"A guy had five of them, and he decided he could get rid of two," Keeton said.

On Wednesday morning, a 91-year-old man came in with a bag of coins he had lying around. He walked out with a check for a couple hundred dollars, Keeton said.

"He was real happy," she said.

Another man brought in some military items on Tuesday. He had a weapon his grandfather brought back from World War II, and he wanted to know what it was. The treasure hunters identified it as a Nazi Lufthansa dagger.

That man didn't want to sell the dagger. Keeton said if there aren't other customers waiting, they will identify items for people even if they have no intent to sell them.

"We don't do appraisals, but we can look up items," Keeton said. "I mean, we want to buy them of course, but sometimes that just doesn't quite work."

They also saw in the first half of this week a violin, jewelry, coins, a lap guitar, and a 1914 illustrated news book from London. Some of those items they decided to buy, and some they didn't.

Whether or not they make an offer depends on the value of the item.

"The market is tough on collectibles," Keeton said. "Sometimes they can be worth more than others. That's why we invite people to bring everything in, because you never know. It's what's hot at the moment. Some things are always collectible, like Fender guitars. That kind of stuff, there's usually a market for that."

Most people who work for the company have some sort of background that helps them with the work. Keeton collected antiques for years before she got into buying them as a career. Several of the people she works with have backgrounds in art or art history.

THR employees have to do a minimum of four week training at the company's university in Illinois. Then, when they're holding an event like the one at the Best Western this week, they have a database on which they can check values of items.

If it's a really unusual item, the company has a research station in Illinois. Keeton and her coworkers can take photos of an item on the spot, then send them to the homebase. They find out what it is and what it's worth there, and then they send the info back to Keeton.

"The wonderful world of computers makes that happen," Keeton said.

When she's buying jewelry, Keeton puts it on the scale and decides how much to offer a person based on the weight. It will also depend on the carat of the jewelry.

Most of the time, gold is marked with a carat number, but if not, they can test for authenticity and carat. They can test for diamonds as well.

There's always a market for gold and silver. Keeton said she saw plenty of gold jewelry this week.

"People are cleaning out their jewelry boxes," she said. "With the tough economic times, people have this stuff lying around, you know. Why not make a little money off of it?"

She said that spring is a big time for people to clean out their attics and garage to try to sell them.

She likes that her company provides customers with a face-to-face interaction. She said people feel more comfortable believing they're getting the full worth of their item when they're dealing with someone in person, rather than through the mail, as some companies do.

"It's all done in the open right here, face to face, the way it should be," she said.

The human interaction is one of her favorite parts about the job. A self-described people person, she likes traveling around and meeting new people.

She said she's met a lot of nice people during her time in Saranac Lake.

"It's a nice community," Keeton said. "Most of the time you get to meet really, really nice people. And that makes the job. It really does."



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