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Toronto's Treasure Hunters
"The ground is the world's largest bank."

Ellis conducting an in-water search. Photo by Casey Patrick.

Mark Ellis and I are slowly sinking into the sand of the beach volleyball courts at Woodbine. He’s wearing a large black fanny pack equipped with a bottle of water, a mini-probe that resembles a sex toy, and a pouch for garbage. A forget-me-nots tattoo encircles his arm.

Ellis works for theringfinders.com, a web-based agency that connects people who have lost valuables with treasure-hunters from around the world. It’s a global directory of 180 specialists in 19 countries. They generally work on a reward basis rather than a set hourly rate. The client pays out a ‘reward’; a combination of what the ring means to them and what they can afford.

He is going over the finer points of treasure-hunting. “The devil is in the details,” he announces. “Did they have suntan lotion on? Did they lose weight recently? Why did the ring come off so easily? Were they in the water? Fingers will shrink in the water.” He mentions that people habitually pile their belongings at guideposts; like the base of the volleyball net poles and not in the middle of the court. Learning human behaviors and physiological factors are a major determinant of treasure-finding success.

“Rings hide so easily. Gold, for what it is, is incredibly heavy. The reason why they hide so easily is because of their inherent shape. There’s no surface area.” He demonstrates by hurling his wedding band into the sand. It is swallowed up instantly.  “It’s gone.”

He swings his metal detector over the hidden ring. It starts beeping faster as he gets closer, like a duckling on amphetamines. “With modern metal detectors, there’s a thing in here called “discrimination”, and you can actually tune out certain metals. It works on the conductivity scale – between non-ferrous and ferrous metal. If we’re hunting on this beach and I still keep finding rusty nails and stuff – you can tune those out. You’ve got to be careful though because the more you turn up that discriminator, you can actually lose non-ferrous metals. Platinum will go right away, gold will go… I never use any discrimination. I find a lot of garbage, but I’m not going to miss anything.”

After a few seconds the detector goes into overdrive, and he quickly scoops up his wedding band. He also pulls up a bottle cap liner. “I hate these things,” he says, eyeing it with disgust. “These are our nemesis. They sound so good because they’re round. They sound exactly like a coin. And you’ll probably find twenty of these to every coin.”

If you lose your ring, he says, the best thing to do is stay put and make a reference point. If you are out in the water, find an adjacent tree or rock to act as a marker, then count your paces to the shore. He would then use your basic reference point and draw out a grid, like an archaeological dig.

Ellis had always been a curious kid and was given a metal detector early on as a gift. He was immediately hooked. “It’s the only hobby that I know that will pay you back.” After 20 years of working as a private investigator for insurance fraud, he was ready to do something else. He tired of the long hours spent waiting in a hot vehicle, peeing into a bottle. Now, he wants to be a full-time treasure hunter.

We see another metal-detecting man ambling through the sand. Is there a secret wave for fellow treasure hunters? A trucker-like nod? Not really, says Ellis. But most subscribe to a code of ethics. The first is that you always look for an inscription on rings you find. “If it says ‘Tiff and Bill -1997′, you know it’s a wedding. Then I try to find a Tiff and Bill – it would all be on the Internet.” He will post photos of the rings on Kijiji and craigslist. If no one comes to claim it, it’s his.

“Have you ever lost anything before? It’s a sickening feeling. It’s like a punch in the gut. It’s all you can think about and you’re so upset. What are you going to say to the person who gave it to you?” Generally, people are more interested in the sentimental value of the object over the monetary value. They implore Ellis to find their ring – not because it was expensive – but because it was given to them by their grandmother before she died.

He recalls finding a woman’s engagement ring which had fallen off when she was mowing the grass. She had been searching for three days. Her husband, initially skeptical, hid a decoy wedding band in the grass. Ellis found it immediately. The husband sheepishly admitted it was “just to see if your equipment is working”. Mark found the engagement ring shortly thereafter. “I said check this out… do you recognize that?” She froze, then, “she jumps on me like a monkey, puts her legs around me.. her husband literally had to pull her off me, she would not let me go.”

Men and women alike will cry, laugh, hug and kiss Ellis when he finds their belongings. They can’t always afford to pay alot but in most cases, they pay what they can.

The weirdest thing he’s had to dredge up is a pair of dentures. Other requests have been for retainers, property markers, and unknown hidden treasures.

“Something that’s getting really big now is hunting for buried cash. The ground is the world’s largest bank. It always has been, always will be. They know for a fact  – there are more coins in the ground than are currently in circulation. Even just over the period of time- since coinage. Every single day people are finding coin hordes. People don’t trust people. They bury stuff in the ground and then something happens. They get sick, or they die or they get incarcerated and don’t remember the cash.”

Hiding money “was so prominent back at the turn of the century. Number one, banks were too far away. And people didn’t trust banks as far as they could throw them. They’d hide the money. Women had a butter and egg cache… they’d take an old mason jar. If their husband had a gambling problem or a drinking problem they would squirrel away 50 cent pieces and dollar coins for a rainy day. They’d hide them in the root cellar or under the floor. Guys are pulling up these caches everyday.”

As we are on the beach, Ellis gets a call from a man across town whose wedding band slipped off while he was doing chin-ups at a park. Less than an hour later, I get a call from Ellis. “The greatest feeling in the world is to help somebody,” he gushes. He found the ring.


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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