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Monday, December 28, 2009

They Buy Treasures

Interview with a Traveling Antiques Appraiser

By Silvia Uribe

I remember how much fun I had when, as a kid, I participated in the Girl Scout treasure hunts. I felt like an old-school investigator who had to exercise her intelligence and observation skills in order to solve the assigned mystery. I felt like the Latina version of Sherlock Holmes. I would've responded easily to the name Sherlocka.

Not only that, but having the vivid imagination of an eight-year-old kid, I imagined and wrote a story of a child who found a treasure at her school grounds in a very unlikely place: the pool. In order to access this treasure, the protagonist (me, who else?) had to dive into the deepest part of the pool, and open a little door on one of the side walls by which she could get to a room lit with torches, and filled with unexpected treasures and antiques.

Where this story came from is a mystery to me. It is as much a mystery how it ends, because I was never committed enough to finishing it. Maybe that's why I got fixated on treasures and antiques. Who knows! Last week, my fascination for these objects got new wind in its sails: I went to witness a great Treasure Hunt that took place in Goleta.

No, it was not a community venture. A company by the name of We Buy Treasure (, based in North Carolina, came to our area. Its manager, Chris Wagner, was nice enough to let me in on the secrets of this business, and the ins and outs of what we need to know in order to cash in on those rare possessions that could be worth a small fortune.

Wagner travels, with his team of four, to four or five towns around the country per month. "I'm out for four or five weeks and then I'm off one week," he said. "We come back home during the weekends. Here in Goleta, for instance, it has not been terribly busy," he continued. "However, very good things are coming: jewelry, coins, autographed pictures of famous people."

When I arrived at the Treasure Hunt, a gentleman with a book of autographed pictures was being helped. The collection included photos of Joe DiMaggio, Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, and John Wayne. "Precisely what we were hoping for in this area," said Wagner.

Because "Curiosity" should've been my middle name, I wanted to know how someone becomes an expert appraiser. "With time and experience, but you also need to be a part of that culture, I think. In my case, as a child, my life revolved around sports: basketball, football, and also comic books. I had a great collection," said Wagner, as he opened his eyes real big. "I always had the collector bug in my blood."

"I understand that you collected sports memorabilia and comic books, but what about other items?" I asked. "How can you judge if they're valuable or not?" He replied, "The company has around 50 appraisers. If there's something with which I'm not familiar, I can always reach them. We also have with a great database, where we can also research the prices that items are going for now."

What items are going down in price? "Porcelain, newer baseball '80s and '90s cards, and same years comics are not a good investment," Wagner said.

Furniture is also down now, he said: Good pieces of furniture are worth one third of what they were worth two years ago, or even less. "However," he added, "I think that these will rebound rather sooner. I think furniture is a great thing to buy now if you have the money. It is certainly a great investment. A couple of years ago an antique dinner table was $3,000, and now it may be around $700. Yet, this is the type of item that will for sure bounce back."

"Can you explain how this business works?" I asked. "Well," he said, "a person brings an item and if we think we will be able to sell it, we make an offer, and the person decides if he/she takes it or not. We offer free appraisals with the hope to have the opportunity to buy the items." Once they have bought one, or several, items, his group ships them to North Carolina, to be sold through a couple of auction houses the company works with.

"Items are usually sold in a couple of runs," he said. "We have a very good eye. We also have customers that are looking for something in particular. When we find it, we call them and they usually pay very good money. We have a 50 percent to 75 percent profit rate, but our overhead is big, with the traveling and the shipping, plus we also have to take some losses when the items don't sell."

The rarest item he's ever seen? "A Gibson mandolin from the 18th 19th century. I think we sold it for almost $100,000. We made a good profit."

The weirdest thing ever brought to him for appraisal? "A man was in Greece in an excavation of a church and he found there an image that he told me was the oldest picture of Christ. Is that what it was or just a stain on a wall? Who knows, but that was weird."

His favorite thing to buy? "I love maps. They're like a window to the past. In them you can see how the world has changed."

Have people gotten mad at him? "Sometimes we don't even make an offer and people don't like that. Some other people have idealized their perception of what they have and they're expecting you to pay for a beat-up coin the price of an uncirculated one. They want the full price. We tell them the price and if they get upset, they get upset.

The final question I got to put to Wagner was, "What's the best thing about this job?" He said, "There's very little monotony, and I love learning new things."

I finished my interview with Wagner only due to the fact that many more treasures came in and a waiting list started to fill up. For those of you who find treasure hunts fascinating, who like little monotony and lots of traveling, this could be an excellent career. Think about it!

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.

Cross-posted at the

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Under Pressure

By Silvia Uribe

Old Faithful
For most, pressure is an unpleasant sensation; something to avoid at all cost. Many, are sold on the idea that we can live our lives without pressure, be freed up and feel the liberating sensation from the stress that pressure brings along, as well as from the illnesses that derive from it. Magically, they tell us, once we have accomplished this, our life will be closer to perfect. But is this true or is it just an imaginary state, much as the "simply perfect" place described in Thomas More's Utopia?

Pressure starts from the time we're babies. When we're learning how to walk, for instance, we fall; we get ourselves up time and time again, just to fall back on our butts, and then we start all over, until one day we're able to walk. Our life continues pretty much in the same way; we pressure ourselves by trying new things, failing, and trying again until we master that new skill, or a new ability, or until we accomplish a new goal. Pressure is innate to human kind.

As we grow up, we learn the ropes. We know that if we apply ourselves and are willing to repeat things enough times, we can be successful in the end, and success is sweet. It makes us feel good, accomplished, even admired. That's how we build our self-esteem, and how, when we have an inevitable defeat, we can bounce back rather quickly.

Depending on the size of our ambitions, we continue trying new things until we achieve each goal. Those who work well under pressure are the ones who, instead of avoiding it, adapt to it faster.

Life is pressure, and we seem to be wired for and well equipped to not only manage pressures, but to use them as a tool for our personal growth.

But, is it possible or even good for us to pursue the idea of not having pressure in our lives? If we are financially well off, that's great, one less concern. But much like anybody else, we cannot get away from other pressures: health issues, family responsibilities, and work or the lack thereof, or simply trying to move ahead in life.

Instead of adapting, we could avoid pressures at all cost and teach our children to do the same. We could decide not to take on any challenges, not to pursue any dreams, not to have the responsibility of a family and, since we have to make a living, choose to have a job that is not too demanding, and if it becomes so, leave it and go somewhere else. Basically, we could follow what I call the, "law of the least effort".

But then, it would seem, our life would never be complete; we would be silent, stand-by witnesses of our own story. We would take all our power away from ourselves and be like the leaves of a tree, going wherever the wind may take us, with no direction or particular purpose.

In the USA, the reality of life is different than in most other places. In Latin America, for instance, people are exposed to very difficult circumstances at a very young age: they don't have enough food to eat, or a welfare system in place to meet their most basic needs. Parents have no opportunities, and they cannot appropriately provide for their children. Nevertheless, most people can still function normally because they're capable of dealing with those pressures.

Thankfully, most of us here don't have to deal with extreme circumstances. Yet as parents, we think we do a favor to our children when we over-protect them so that they don't have to face challenges. But, is this really helping them, or are we raising them as socially handicapped persons who are not prepared to deal with life struggles?

Look around. Our youth today is plagued with quitters who are so passive that they have no desire or instinct to fight for what's worthwhile. "Having a girlfriend is too much pressure", Mike, my 19-year-old neighbor, told me last summer. "…if I have one, I need money; girls are high maintenance. I don't want to work, jobs are too demanding. What's wrong with staying home playing computer games?"

Mike is not an isolated case. Many young people grow as dreamless individuals who cannot visualize themselves in the future and get depressed because they have no motivation in life.

No one wants that for their child. That's why it would make more sense for us to sharpen our children's innate abilities to adapt to, and deal with, the pressures that come their way; to give them trouble-shooting, decision making, and coping skills by allowing them to struggle (at least every now and then), instead of rescuing them time after time.

Frequently, life is tough, but it is rarely impossible. Those who adapt to life and its pressures have a much higher chance of success than those who avoid them. Being under pressure is not as bad as being under-living, under-achieving, and constantly under-estimating our capabilities.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.

Cross-posted at

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Cheapest Holiday Present

Loving the Light

By Silvia Uribe

Last night was a sky-clear, full-moon-lit night in a bluer than usual light. It was quite cold, 48 degrees. It starts feeling like holiday time as soon as my fingers go stiff and my nose hurts a little on the bridge; you know, one of those weird things. As I was sitting in the living room admiring our Christmas tree and the rest of the ornaments around my home, it occurred to me that my family is not the only family that has the tradition of having our home already decorated on the first day of December.

People might have different reasons for being prompt in making their home look festive. For us, though, decorating our home inside and out is a reflection of the love that this season symbolizes and stresses the importance of coming together as a family on a project that allows us to be with, play with, and enjoy each other while decorating. Here's the best part: We don't take the decorations down until January 6, after Epiphany, and once the Rosca de Reyes celebration has passed - that's a Spanish and Mexican tradition that I'll explain in due time.

Our tradition started almost two decades ago, and has continued every year no matter what our circumstances were, or if we had others around us to help, or which country we were living in. Actually, it didn't even matter that we didn't have our home furnished yet one year; we for sure had a decorated tree on December 1. Sitting on the ground, we had enough time to admire our tree as we waited for a week and a half for our furniture to be delivered. Come Hell or high water, our tradition stands.

With all this in mind, I dragged my husband around Goleta just to take a look and see how many homes have been fully decorated in the first three days of December (just before my deadline to turn in this column). It was a nice surprise to see that more homes than I thought were already decorated with some sort of Christmas lights hanging from their roofs and sometimes around the trunk of their front-lawn tree. Not only that, but we were able to also find some homes that were richly decorated; I took some photos.

I'm glad to see that the spirit of the holidays is demonstrated not only with material presents that cost much more than we should be willing to pay, making it very difficult on our pockets, particularly in these grim times that we are living. I'm glad to see the warmth and the love in the form of giving a little to make ourselves and others happy, the cheapest present that we can give, and the one that's really the most desired.

Since this is a time to share, feel free to share with our Grapevine readers your family's favorite tradition, the one most special to you, so that the warmth and the love continue to go around.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.

Cross-posted at the