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.
He graduated from South Broward High School, studied film at the University of Central Florida, and then moved to New York, where he eventually ran into Abel Ferrara, an indie director. After Deutzman showed him a college project titled 3 by 3, 1 by 1, Ferrara produced a version that eventually screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
But Deutzman had trouble making a living in New York, where he found mostly unpaid jobs in the film industry. So he returned to South Florida this past February with hopes of landing a gig at a production company. After a series of interviews, he became frustrated to learn that paying jobs were just as tough to find in Miami.
"I walked out of the office, brought up eBay on my phone, bid on a metal detector, and didn't answer anyone's business calls after that," he says.
Since March, he's spent 20 hours a week fulfilling his boyhood fantasy and living off people's detritus. Scores of well-off tourists get drunk on the beach every weekend, leaving plenty of rings, watches, and even gem-encrusted grills dropped in the sand. In only three months, Deutzman says, he's found about $4,000 worth of scrap gold.
As Deutzman's finds piled up, though, he made an unpleasant discovery about state law. Until 2005, amateur archaeologists were free to keep anything they found as long as they disclosed the location of their excavations to authorities — a rule that also applied to metal detectors. But that year, Florida did away with the program because of widespread noncompliance. (Only seven people regularly reported their finds, according to the Florida Public Archaeology Network.)
Now, any artifacts older than 50 years must be surrendered to the state's Division of Historical Resources. Earlier this year, a group of amateur archaeologists petitioned state Sen. Alan Hays of Umatilla to draft a bill that would reinstate the old rules, but the proposal never got off the ground.
Even worse, Florida law is head-scratchingly complex when it comes to finding valuables in or around the ocean. If lost rings or jewelry wash ashore or are hidden near the surface, it's generally OK to keep them. But any historical artifact found at sea needs to be reported to state officials, and would-be archaeologists are forbidden from excavating below the sand in state waters, which extend from the high-tide line to three miles out, says Corey Malcom, chief archaeologist at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.
"It's not a finders-keepers world," adds Roger Smith, Florida's official underwater archaeologist, a $43,000-a-year position in Tallahassee.
Those murky rules are a real problem for serious metal detectors. They argue that not only are the rules rarely enforced and impossible to police, but also they ignore that detectors provide a free clean-up service, removing metal and glass objects that would be a nuisance to swimmers. Though scavengers might pocket the occasional old coin, they also bring big money to Florida.
"They need to realize this is a hobby and see what we do," Spratley says. "People come to Florida from all over with metal detectors in their suitcases."
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On Deutzman's Fourth of July excursion to the waters off South Beach, it's a moot point. After just a few hours in the baking sun and roiling tide, he gives up and trudges home with the set of teeth rattling in a red satchel around his waist.
His pin-up beauty of a girlfriend, Karen, is waiting at their Mid-Beach apartment with a protein shake and hopeful eyes. When he throws his gruesome find on the table, she recoils and asks, "What kind of backward country are these from?"
Deutzman shakes his head sadly, but he knows he'll be back at it tomorrow, looking for whatever treasures that night's party crowd drunkenly drops on the sand.
"Relative to my peers, I feel very fortunate," he says. "I have no debt, no immediate need to take up work, and the ability to spit in the face of every cheap prick who thinks I should work for free to make them rich."