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Showing their metal: Long Island's 'treasure' hunters come out in the cold

Ed Koster of Holtsville has been a metal detectorist for more than eight years, after receiving a metal detector from his wife. He says the hobby is relaxing. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Tyler Hawes and Silvio Guidi met at 11 a.m. on a fall Tuesday at a potato field in East Hampton to do the equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack. Hawes believed he had lost his wedding ring the previous Friday while volunteering at Share the Harvest Farm, which donates to pantries and those in need.

"I noticed on the way home that I didn't have it," he said of the platinum wedding band. "I went back and scoured the field for a couple of hours to no avail."

Hawes, 39, of East Hampton, reached out to the farm, which through a Facebook group for metal detectorists found Guidi. He showed up with a metal detector and handed another to Hawes.

"I’m familiar with what a ring would sound like," Guidi said of the tone he would hear in the device’s headset. "Things like tin foil and tiny metal objects sound different."

As he scanned, Guidi periodically dug up the soil with no luck — a rosebush tag here, a crushed can or pull tab there — before hitting pay dirt.

"I hit on a good, solid target near the edge of the field, about 10 inches deep," said Guidi, 50, of East Hampton. "I told Tyler, ‘I found a ring!’ He walked over and said, ‘That's it! I can't believe you found it!’ "

Metal detecting’s moment

While metal detecting has more than its share of eureka moments, colder months are particularly good for the hobby. Long Islanders often head indoors as the weather cools, leaving beaches like blank canvases for metal detectorists.

The pandemic also has led to more people working from home, allowing those who metal detect to go out more, Guidi said, adding that he has seen more people taking up the outdoor hobby.

Guidi sees each search as an adventure, whether helping to reunite someone with a lost object or simply seeing what turns up in Long Island’s biggest game of lost and found.

"This is our version of being Indiana Jones, finding gold and treasure," Guidi said. "I go metal detecting. My wife collects beach glass. Some people look for shells. Somebody's always looking for something."

Like archaeologists unearthing history, metal detectorists seek a wide range of objects, from buttons to medals, coins to clasps and toys.

"It gets people interested in the history of Long Island," said Douglas DeRenzo, executive director of the Wading River-based Suffolk County Archaeological Association. "On their own property, a friend’s property, the beach. It’s exciting."

Many machines indicate what a found object is likely to be by a number on a screen, specific tone or picture, indicating, for instance, the type of metal. "It’s almost like playing a slot machine. If you pull the handle enough, eventually you’ll find something," Guidi said. "Once you find something really good, you get that bug. You kind of get hooked on it."

Guidi has found a crucifix, bullets, musket balls, old coins and more — as well as rings. "One of my favorites is a big old gold ring with no hallmarks," he said of an object he found but didn’t sell. "I like the age … probably pre-Revolutionary War."

Lillian King made Long Island metal detecting history in 1992 by finding a 1652 Colonial coin in a potato field near the one where Hawes lost his ring. The coin sold at auction for $35,200 before fetching $430,000 at another auction in 2012 in Baltimore.

"It was a fabulous find, a happenstance," DeRenzo said, "on a plowed farmer’s field."

Their life and times

Metal detectorists are all ages, but many start later in life. Ed Koster, 56, of Holtsville, for instance, started when he was gifted a detector. "My wife bought me a metal detector for my birthday eight years ago," Koster said. "My first day, I found a Chinese coin that was 300 years old. That got me hooked."

He still has the coin. "It’s more about the history of Long Island, of preserving it," Koster said. "I thought of selling it, but I never sold it."

Many metal detectorists search for the thrill of the find, locating objects that sometimes combine beauty and history.

"It’s treasure hunting," said Tracy Behling, 53, of Woodhaven, Queens, who began metal detecting last year. "I’m a treasure hunter at heart."

Behling has been at it about a year, finding an assortment of objects, including lost rings in the sand — one of which she reunited with its owner on Long Island. (See sidebar)

"I got the detector for Christmas last year," she said. "I’m up to about nine or 10 rings I found that I can’t identify who they belong to. I recently found a silver medal from some kind of soccer club from 1918."

Ray Johnson, 76, of Medford, started about 15 years ago out of curiosity.

"I was on vacation in Virginia Beach. Some guy comes walking down the beach with a metal detector. I mentioned to my wife and daughter, ‘I could do that,’ " Johnson recalled. "They gave me one for Christmas." He looks in beaches, parks, lakes, yards and shallow water.

Guidi started at age 10 in Elmont after his mother, Rose, bought a White’s Beachcomber metal detector from a Sears catalog that she used at Jones Beach and Point Lookout. "Eventually we got a second metal detector, and I was out there metal detecting with her," Guidi said. "My dad would do it sometimes. It was something to do at the beach."

Guidi said technology has changed a lot. Devices now incorporate Bluetooth technology, wireless headphones and GPS. Newer detectors adjust for minerals in the soil and seek to identify a likely find.

Where to go?

Metal detectorists tend to have favorite spots: Guidi focuses on beaches and old swimming holes.

"You use old postcards, newspaper articles, talking to people who are older," Guidi said. "They’ll tell you where people would go swimming or beaches that were popular years ago when they were younger."

He said that from the 1950s to the 1970s, there were many camps on Long Island, now closed, that have left a buried legacy.

Koster looks at beaches and in the woods after investigating their history. "When I do woods hunting, I do a lot of research about where houses used to be," he said.

In addition to finding long-lost items, metal detectorists see themselves as ridding beaches of trash buried in the sand.

"I have containers full of lead sinkers. The cans, pull tabs, bottle tops, rusty pieces of metal — I take it all off the beach," Guidi said. "It’s less I have to dig the next time I have to go back there."

It's best to check regulations before venturing out to metal detect. State parks generally allow it with permits, but it's not allowed in federal parks or monuments. And, of course, permission is required on private property.

"I get permission from the owners," Johnson said of private land. "Yards are mostly invitation. When a person loses some item, they ask me to find it on their property."

In addition to discovering things on their own, metal detectorists sometimes are contacted by people seeking lost objects (think rings and keys), making moments like Guidi’s with Tyler Hawes fairly common.

Theringfinders.com, for example, provides a worldwide directory of detectorists, saying it has facilitated 7,406 recoveries in more than 11 years. Many detectorists on the site charge transportation or a small fee to cover expenses, or they ask for a reward. Others simply do a good deed.

Johnson found a wedding ring on Sept. 3 that had been lost at Sag Harbor’s Long Beach after a man contacted him through the site.

"He showed me the area where they were sitting and I started my search," Johnson said. "It didn’t take long."

Others, like Guidi, may be connected to people who lost objects through such Facebook pages as Long Island Metal Detecting, with nearly 600 members.

Like finding Tyler Hawes’ ring, Guidi said he has helped nearly a dozen people find lost keys, typically on the beach. "They’ll say, ‘I lost my car keys. I know where I was sitting. Could you take a look for me?’" he said.

Guidi reunited a widow with a lost ring nearly 20 years ago in Sag Harbor more than two months after she had lost it. "She said, ‘Every day, morning and night, I walk on the beach and I hope I find it,’ " Guidi said of the ring from her husband, who had died.

About a week later, Guidi fished the ring out of the water. "I called her up. She was speechless. I think she started crying," Guidi said. "She came to my house. She was shaking. She thought she’d never see it. She got the ring back."

Returning a ring

For Tracy Behling, 53, of Woodhaven, Queens, finding the ring was easy. Behling and her wife, Tammy Schillin, were detecting on a beach in Far Rockaway on Oct. 17 when they found a 1955 Brooklyn College class ring with the initials “JSD.”

“I decided to try to figure out who this belongs to,” said Behling, a regional supervisor at YAI Hudson Valley, which provides services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “The middle initial narrowed things down.”

Through the internet, she found Phyllis Simon, 86, of Melville, chairwoman of the class' reunion journal. “I was shocked by the fact that she found this ring, and it was from my college in the year that I graduated,” Simon said. Paging through her 1955 yearbook, Simon narrowed the initials down to Joseph S. Diamond.

“We were on the phone as she went through the yearbook,” Behling explained, “so when she found the exact match for JSD, we were both thrilled.”

Technology helped complete the connection. “Thanks to Google, I was able to locate the owner of the ring,” Behling said of Diamond, 86, of Merrick.

Simon spoke with Diamond’s wife, Maxine, before returning the ring, lost years ago, on Nov. 22. “She said, ‘We had a terrible winter,’” said Simon, who hadn’t known Diamond in college. “ ‘It was wonderful to hear that something lost so long ago was found.’ ”

Meanwhile, Simon and Behling have become friends. “To this day, Phyllis and I speak often and have become good friends,” Behling said. “We plan to one day meet in person for lunch.”

— Claude Solnik

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