by Abe Sauer
One look at the Treasure Hunters Roadshow operation and it’s clear what popular program the operation is exploiting. The Illinois-based traveling con has little in common with PBS’ Antiques Roadshow beyond a treasure chest logo and a similar name. Another thing it shares is a popularity based on a decreasingly well-off population’s desperate hope that a lifetime of treasuring material things will somehow, miraculously, be monetarily profitable.
A national cultural failure, for sure. But the real tragedy is that this swindle is being underwritten by the very organizations charged with protecting their respective communities from just such chicanery.
According to Treasure Hunters Roadshow, they are a team that travels “300,000+ miles per year, many times re-visiting an area more than once annually. Our fair and honest offers are made based on the current market, Internet and specific collector values. Many times, our representatives will contact specialists in our collectors network while the residents are in front of them to establish value with the seller. We are here to BUY the items at fair and honest prices!”
According to others, Treasures Hunters Roadshow, known also as Ohio Valley Gold and Silver Refinery, is a band of traveling con artists, bamboozling the unsuspecting out of their gold and valuables.
But who to believe? This truth is probably apparent in the employment of exclamation marks in the insistence of one’s trustworthiness. In other words, the Treasure Hunters doth insist too much.
The Roadshow is a group of appraisal “experts” that set up shop for several days in communities across America. Generally, the event is hosted in a small hotel conference room, as was the one I attended in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Those looking to sell their antiques and collectibles, coins and gold (especially gold!) take a number and sit around waiting until one of the Treasure Hunter agents is ready to look over what the treasure owners brought in.
In the Grand Forks hotel waiting area, I sat with a handful of hopefuls. A few were alone. All were accompanied by boxes overflowing with yellowed books and toys and cereal boxes and carvings and ceramics. A lamp; a shotgun; a sad collection of ancient detritus largely valuable only to each individual, mostly worthless to others. Juiced on Antiques Roadshow dreams of garbage worth thousands, the room’s energy was higher than reality warranted, like a long line of excited suckers waiting to take that Disneyland ride that they would later understand actually sucked eggs. A fake fireplace was on one wall of the room, a flat-panel TV showing Fox news was above that. As if out of an overreaching satire, Fox News repeatedly featured gold commercials.
When finally a number gets called, the excited customer shuffles into the Roadshow’s examination room where an expert gives the goods a look-see and, after a few calls, makes an on-the-spot offer. Take it or leave it. In the case of the cereal boxes and carvings and ceramics and yellowed junk, no offer is forthcoming. The gun, maybe a few bucks. But seriously… you have any gold? Gold would be great. Any kind.
But it is true that some offers are made, and it is the nature of these offers that should raise eyebrows. An undercover investigation in January by Beaumont, Texas’ The Examiner found that, despite claiming “top dollar” payments, Roadshow agents consistently offered amounts “nearly a third of the actual value of the items being presented for sale.” The Examiner’s research found that various Roadshow events in Beaumont, Marshall and Shreveport offered as little as 28% of the open market value of the “treasures” brought in. In one instance, a Roadshow broker offered $640 for a coin package valued at $1,550.
No great surprise then that Treasure Hunters Roadshow is not a friend of the Better Business Bureau-although, until being asked to not do so, the group did use the BBB logo on its website. It did this despite not being BBB-accredited. The Roadshow is also, it seems, not always a fan of “certified” things, such as the scales the group used recently in Chico, California. It was a decision that cost them $1,700 in Agricultural Department fines. God knows how much it may have made them in unbalanced gold weighs. (Gold!)
Then there are the satisfied customers. Before it was removed from the Treasure Hunters Facebook page, “James” had the following review of the Roadshow:
Although they advertise (see Friday’s St. Pete Times) to buy antiques, toys, guns, knives, antiques, coins, jewelry, they are nothing more than scrap metal buyers. They are only interested in scrap gold and sterling. The wait — several hours in most cases — is fustrating. You bring in the items they advertise they are buying only to find out they are REALLY only interested in buying scrap metal. I did sell some old coins and sterling, but as scrap with absolutely no other value. Antiques with apprased value, they wern’t interested in. Jewelry from the 20’s and 30’s they were not interested in. If it didn’t contain scrap metal value, they simply were not interested. The lobby was full of people with antiques and jewelry, but, sadly, the lobby was also full of disappointment as these people were not interested in those items unless they contained some scrap metal value.
Here’s a February 2010 lawsuit filed against the group, and its various aliases, by the WGBH Educational Foundation (PBS) charging the Roadshow gang with knowing trading “on WGBII’s famous and hugely successful Antiques Roadshow television program and its ARS Marks and treasure chest logo” and that this use is “designed to deceive and has deceived consumers into believing Defendants are associated with Plaintiff.”
Taking advantage of others’ ignorance after creating false hope may make you an asshole but it is no crime. To see Treasure Hunters Roadshow as a clique of slimeballs and sharks preying on the weak-and yet ignore the fundamental nature of America’s economic superstructure-is naive and short-sighted. Money is not nice nor is it friendly and it never has been.
But as is the case with every good grift, there is an inside man.
What first interested me in the Treasure Hunters Roadshow’s stop in North Dakota was an article that ran in the local newspaper, The Grand Forks Herald. A full page (under tiny print marking it as advertising) included, amongst a number of ad-looking ads, a glowing report from a “staff writer” about all the wealth to be had from the Roadshow. The advertorial looks exactly like any other news article; its “advertisement” call-out diluted by the other ads on the page. Aside from straight under the table paid-for and unmarked content, this is as misleading as advertising gets.
Curious as to just how misleading the advertorial was, I ran it by twelve senior citizen acquaintances, asking if they could identify the ads on the page. Of course they could, they said, pointing to the ad-looking ads. Not one noted the “staff report.”
In one small community newspaper after another on the Treasure Hunters’ tour, these deceptive advertorials can be found-confusing matters, the newspapers also run genuine staff reports about the events.
When the “staff writer” really is a paper’s staff writer, the reports are noxious excuses for journalism. Despite The Examiner’s report being available to even the laziest Google journalism, reports lauding the Treasure Hunters pour forth. For example, a Savannah Morning News March 7 report “Treasure Hunters Roadshow digs in Savannah” by public safety reporter Arek Sarkissian’s was a real meatball, containing lines like “The most sought after merchandise is gold-especially with high market demands” and “It’s generating a lot of money right back into the general public… as a matter of fact, in the last six months, Treasure Hunters has paid out $65 million.” No mention of robbery-like payments. No mention of questionable business practices. No warning.
Four full-page ads ran in that same paper the four consecutive days before the March 7 article. Each one with the same phony “staff writer” report, next to a separate Hunters advertising section. This is largely typical of the way the papers bend their independent content to satisfy the Treasure Hunters advertisers.
Meanwhile, the Savannah Morning News has the gall to claim its mission is “helping build a stronger community.” (Ironically, in the paper’s “about us” section it makes a plea to its online users to “Demonstrate how you would like others to behave. Every time you post, ask yourself: Am I helping make a better place to live?”)
Then there is the case of the canned staff report. I took a random line from the March 26 staff report on the event from California’s Hanford Sentinel: “Enright noted an item doesn’t have to be old to be valuable — just unusual and in the best possible condition.” That same line turns up in a March 31 report on the event in Southern Pines, North Carolina’s The Pilot. From that same article in The Pilot, the line “As the dollar gets weaker, gold and silver go up in value. The gold market is through the roof” appears verbatim in a March 31 piece in Alabama’s Andalusia Star-News. None of these are marked as advertising. But all of them are communities where “citizens may have a fortune in their homes, but not even realize it.”
Not a single one of the publishers of the various newspapers that have run Treasure Hunters advertorials and staff reports responded to requests for comment. Funny, because that mirrors the Treasure Hunters response to my repeated requests for comment. I did get one response from a Grand Forks Herald editor, who said, “I have to say I’m not especially surprised at or shocked by it. As I understand it, ads ‘masquerading’ as news stories are fairly common practice at daily newspapers.”
Local newspapers are desperate for advertising dollars. But in a rush to whore themselves for decreasing amounts, they are abandoning their mission and jeopardizing the very populace they enjoy claiming they benefit and serve, all the while whining about being ripped off by those dastardly bloggers who have no sense of responsibility… or ethics.
In the bigger picture, is this any surprise? What is going on with the Treasure Hunters and smalltown papers is just a smaller version of our national woes. Editors and journalists shrug their shoulders. Publishers plead “the market.” Our national discourse is our only real treasured heirloom, and the powers that be, mostly corporations, are the Treasure Hunters, willing to give us a couple bucks for the lot of it. And the whole rip-off is facilitated by a foul fourth estate that pleads “economic realities.”